LONDON â Prime Minister Theresa Mayâs plan to strike a deal with a small unionist party in Northern Ireland to prop up her government slipped into confusion early Sunday, as the two potential partners issued contradictory statements about the success of their negotiations.
As May sought to seal a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in Belfast, her fellow Tories were grumbling that the Conservative prime minister had not only bungled the election but was performing poorly in the days after.Â
On the Sunday talk shows in Britain, former Tory chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard and a harsh critic of the prime minister, called May âa dead woman walkingâ and suggested that she would soon be forced to resign.
Anna Soubry, a Conservative member of Parliament, said Sunday that she could not predict when May might go but called the prime ministerâs position âuntenable.â
Other Tories, while avoiding passing public judgment on Mayâs immediate fate, were more forthright in predicting that the prime minister is unlikely to lead the Conservative party in future elections.
Still, in the aftermath of a disastrous election for the Tories, it is too early to know what will happen in the coming days as the parties jostled for airtime on the Sunday morning talk shows to forecast Mayâs future â and, more important, what might happen in negotiations over Britainâs exit from the European Union, which are scheduled to begin in a week.
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who has been suspiciously absent from the public stage since the election, denied news accounts that he was maneuvering to replace May.
In a tweet, Johnson called the idea âtripe.â
Johnson said he is backing May. âLetâs get on with the job,â he tweeted.
Defense Secretary Michael Fallon disagreed Sunday that May was mortally wounded and said he expected the Tory members of Parliament to support her this week.
Mayâs main opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, appeared on the Sunday talk shows and news websites, looking either âsereneâ or âsmugâ â depending on the commentatorâs measure of the man. Labour came out of Thursdayâs election with a substantial growth spurt.
Corbyn said it is âquite possibleâ that there will be another election this year or early next year. âWe cannot continue like this,â he said, predicting that even a loose alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP cannot endure.Â
Another top Labour leader, John McDonnell, said Sunday that Mayâs partnership with the Irish unionists will be a âcoalition of chaos.âÂ
On Saturday evening, the prime ministerâs office suggested a deal had been struck for a âconfidence and supplyâ agreement with the DUP, a socially conservative and traditionalist movement. Downing Street said the deal would be revealed Monday to the cabinet.
But Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, said, âDiscussions will continue next week to work on the details and to reach agreement on arrangements for the new Parliament.â
One of the prime ministerâs representatives was then forced to put out another statement, explaining that no final deal had been struck and suggesting that talks will drag into this week.
âAs and when details are finalised, both parties will put them forward,â an official in Mayâs office said.
Shake-ups â and plenty of finger-pointing â began soon after the election results came in.Â
On Saturday, two top aides of May resigned and a former minister acknowledged that Tories were plotting possible replacements via the messaging service WhatsApp.Â
The aides who resigned, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, Mayâs fiercely loyal co-chiefs of staff, had been widely blamed within the Conservative Party for the lackluster campaign that ended with the Tories losing their majority in Parliament.
Their departures were seen as a Downing Street bid to stave off a far more dramatic resignation: that of the prime minister.Â
But it was unclear whether it would be enough, with some Conservatives acknowledging that May has effectively become a lame-duck leader after a vote that was supposed to give her a resounding mandate for the next five years but, instead, morphed into a stinging rejection that could end her premiership within days.
May has insisted that she will not step aside and will instead form a new government that will lead the country through the treacherous currents of the Brexit talks. Several senior members of her party have backed her, saying the country canât afford the chaos of starting to pick a new leader only days before negotiations with European leaders are to kick off.Â
But other senior Tories have been conspicuous in their silence, and behind the scenes the party has been engaged in fevered debate behind the scenes on whether to push for Mayâs ouster â if not now, then perhaps in several months after Britainâs E.U. divorce talks have launched.Â
The disruption of recent weeks has not only created worries in Europe, already antsy on the eve of Brexit negotiations, but also appears to have crossed the Atlantic.
The Guardian newspaper, quoting anonymous sources, reported that President Trump recently told May in a phone call that he does not want to go forward with a state visit to Britain until the public here supports the trip.
âThe U.S. president said he did not want to come if there were large-scale protests and his remarks in effect put the visit on hold for some time,â the Guardian reported.
The White House call was made âin recent weeks,â according to a Downing Street adviser who was in the room, the Guardian wrote. The statement surprised May, according to those present.
Supporters of a hard exit from the European Union are watching May for any sign that she might be steering toward a softer departure from Europeâs trade and governing bloc.Â
On Saturday evening, the prime ministerâs office announced a new chief of staff, former minister Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat in the election.
The choice did not go down well with Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and a leading force behind Brexit.
Farage called Barwellâs selection the âworst possible startâ for May, because her new chief of staff opposed leaving the European Union and is viewed as squishy on Brexit.
Worse, during last yearâs referendum on the measure, BarwellÂ called Farage a âracistâ who âhates modern Britain.â
If May does move out of 10 Downing Street, it would be the second time in the past year that Britain has been left leaderless after a Tory prime minister gambled and lost in calling a national vote. May came to office last summer after her predecessor, David Cameron, called a referendum on an exit from the European Union, a move he opposed. Britons voted in favor of an exit, and Cameron resigned the next morning.Â
The question of whether May will stay on is taking longer to answer â at least in part because no one expected her to lose Thursday, and, therefore, no one in her party had prepared for the possibility of trying to topple her.Â
The Conservatives have a long history of unsentimentally sacking their leaders â Margaret Thatcher among them â when they have become more liability than asset.
In an indication of just how quickly the mood in the Tory inner sanctum was turning against May, a former senior Downing Street aide told the BBC on Saturday morning that Mayâs office had been âdysfunctionalâ and âtoxic.âÂ
Katie Perrior, who was until recently the prime ministerâs director of communications, also implied that May was out of her depth after being elevated from home secretary to prime minister in July.
âTrying to make that change to Number 10 was more difficult than she possibly anticipated,â she said.
Perrior called May âa good personâ but blamed Hill and Timothy, who have been the prime ministerâs closest advisers and were at the heart of a Downing Street operation that many in the party saw as controlling and exclusionary.Â
The BBC reported that May had been warned by senior Tory lawmakers that unless Hill and Timothy were ousted, the prime minister would face an internal party challenge to her leadership by Monday morning.
In her resignation statement, Hill said she had âno doubt at all that Theresa May will continue to serve and work hard as prime minister â and do it brilliantly.â
The exits of Hill and Timothy were publicly cheered by Tory lawmaker Nigel Evans, who wrote on Twitter that âresignations of advisors must be the start â inclusive style of governance must follow.âÂ
But others dismissed the move as a stalling tactic that doesnât address the real problem in Mayâs government: May herself.
Until the early hours of Friday, when the disastrous results came into focus, she had enjoyed overwhelming popularity among the Tory rank-and-file. But that seems to have changed. An unscientific poll of party members by the ConservativeHome website, a popular gathering spot for Tory activists, showed that 60 percent wanted May to step down.
Former minister Ed Vaizey told the BBC on Saturday that he supports May staying on but that the Tories were discussing possible replacements. Asked whether members were calling one another to plot Mayâs ouster this weekend, he denied it.Â
âThatâs so 20th century,â he said. âItâs all on WhatsApp.â
Most Tories have argued less that May is the right person for the job than that now â with Brexit talks only days away â is not the right time for her to step down.
âVoters do not want further months of uncertainty and upheaval,â William Hague, a former party leader and former foreign secretary, wrote in the Telegraph. âThey want to see ministers getting on with the job, while acknowledging democracy and their constrained circumstances.â
Under Conservative Party rules, it takes support from at least 48 out of the partyâs 318 members of Parliament to trigger a leadership contest. The selection process would last months, with the partyâs lawmakers first winnowing the field to two and then rank-and-file members choosing between the finalists, one of whom would become the new prime minister.
Since after delivering a defiant speech in front of Downing Street on Friday, in which she vowed to carry on and made no mention of the crushing election results, May has been quiet.