Theresa May has lost her parliamentary majority, but remains in power thanks to a nationalist Northern Irish party. But May’s position as prime minister and the future of her Conservative Party remains uncertain.
On Thursday night, British Prime Minister Theresa May had to stand next to a self-proclaimed intergalactic space lord wearing a home-made bucket on his head while her re-election as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Maidenhead was confirmed.
It turned out to be a neat metaphor of the specific disarray that the prime minister found herself in on the morning after her ill-advised snap election. As was confirmed Friday morning, Britain’s governing Conservative Party has now been forced into seeking the support of a party that many would consider only slightly less fringe than Lord Buckethead.
After negotiations that reportedly went on long into the night – even as votes were still being counted – May made a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an ultra-conservative populist right-wing faction that eventually offered the support their ten MPs that would allow her Tories to form a minority government.
Where now for May?
The move created some uncertainties over future Brexit negotiations, particularly with regard to the UK’s Irish border. But that was a small price to pay for May, because it headed off the immediate calls for May’s resignation from both the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and some in her own party.
Nevertheless, on Friday UK bookmakers were still speculating about who would succeed her as the next Conservative leader. The leadership battle that May won last July in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation showed how pitiless leading Tories can be, and they will now be smelling blood.
At the moment there are a handful of names on the table, should May’s support waver – which is not unlikely. There were rumors of her personal unpopularity within the party even before the election, and, as one senior British political editor noted, those rumors have hardly gone away:
Nest of blue vipers
Chief among the potential replacements is the relentlessly ambitious Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, former magazine editor and London mayor who went on to become one of the leaders of the “Leave” campaign in last June’s EU referendum. But there was some suspicion of opportunism around his loyalties, not least because he delayed his announcement about which side he was on, and wrote two separate articles arguing both sides of the case.
Another senior Tory who may have his eye on the top seat is Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who is known to disagree with May on some key policies, and – as a “Remainer” who, by dint of his position, would have been instrumental in the Brexit negotiations in any case, could well be seen as a stable option in the middle of the Conservatives turmoil.
Less likely to take over, according to bookmakers, is Amber Rudd, May’s successor as Home Secretary and stand-in for the TV leadership debate that May was criticized for not attending.
Despite her high-profile appearances in the campaign, Rudd struggled during those debates and was left to defend the Conservative cuts to policing in the UK after the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Not only that, her authority was somewhat diminished by the fact that it took multiple recounts on Thursday night to confirm that she had retained her seat.
But if May stays as leader, perhaps the more pressing headache facing the Tories will be what direction its politics will take. Much like Angela Merkel in Germany, May dragged her party to the right with ever more restrictive anti-immigration policies in an attempt to defend the party against the rise of the populist far-right party.
That tactic may have worked – insofar as UKIP was effectively crushed on Thursday – but it ultimately meant the Tories fought a relentlessly negative, fear-based campaign that clearly did not appeal to younger voters. Whether May and her Conservatives have learnt that lesson remains to be seen.