By Griff Witte, Karla Adam and William Booth
LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed Friday to remain in power and push ahead with difficult talks on Britain’s E.U. exit despite a stunning election blow that left her Conservative Party weakened and the country in a political tailspin.
“I will now form a government - a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country,” May said in front of 10 Downing Street.
She promised no delays in negotiations with the European Union, which were scheduled to begin later this month.
“What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” she said in a grim-faced statement that reflected the major challenges ahead for her government after an election gamble that tipped the scales in favor of her political opponents.
For May, the results from Thursday voting were precisely the reverse of what she hoped. May called the snap election seeking to strengthen her hand in the E.U. negotiations and further sideline her political critics.
Instead, the Conservatives lost its majority in Parliament and the opposition Labour Party gained new focus as a voice questioning Britain’s direction since the last ballot box shock: last year’s referendum to pull out of the European Union.
The political wreckage also included the resignation of the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Paul Nuttall, whose party led the charge for Brexit, a further sign of shifting British views and political realignments.
Brexit talks are scheduled to begin June 19, but some E.U. officials have raised the idea of a delay while Britain deals with the election aftermath. The E.U. foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, expressed frustration that “we still don’t know the British position in the negotiations on Brexit.”
There was not much more clarity in Britain.
May now seeks to govern without the Conservatives holding a majority in Parliament.
That means that Conservatives would not have the lawmakers on its own to push through legislation and would have to make potentially difficult outreach to smaller parties to move anything through Parliament.
For the moment, the lifeline for May’s party appeared to be Northern Ireland’s right-of-center Democratic Unionist Party, which will support her minority administration, British media reported.
The outcome - an astonishing turn following a campaign that began with predictions that May would win in a historic landslide - immediately raised questions even among her fellow Tories about whether she could maintain her hold on 10 Downing Street.
Even May’s new ally, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has questioned whether May will survive as prime minister.
When asked if May would be able to remain in her post, Foster told the BBC on Friday that she was unsure, adding “I think it will be difficult for her to survive.”
The election also threw into disarray the country’s plans for leaving the European Union, threatening to render Britain rudderless just days before talks were to begin with European leaders over the terms of the nation’s exit.
A projection based on final results in nearly every district nationwide put the Conservatives at 319 seats - seven short of what they would need for a working majority in the 650-member Parliament and well down from the 331 they won just two years ago.
The Labour Party was forecast to win 262 seats - an unexpected gain of dozens of seats under far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn. The outcome gave him at least a chance, albeit an extremely remote one, of becoming prime minister - something virtually no one had thought possible before Thursday’s vote.
The results mark the second time in as many years that the British body politic has defied predictions, scrambled the country’s direction and bucked the will of a prime minister who had gambled by calling a vote when none had been required.
But unlike last year’s E.U. referendum - which delivered a clear if close verdict to get out of the bloc - the will of the voters who cast ballots Thursday was not nearly as easy to decipher.
A triumphant Corbyn, crowing that the country had “had enough of austerity politics,” demanded that she resign.
“The prime minister called the election because she wanted a mandate,” Corbyn said in an early morning speech after winning reelection to his north London district. “Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence. I would have thought that is enough for her to go, actually.”
Minutes later, May - her voice trembling - delivered her own speech in which she said that as long as the Conservatives remain the largest party, they should be allowed to govern.
“The country needs a period of stability,” she said.
Within her own party, Thursday’s results represented a catastrophic outcome that may prompt a search for a new leader.
“It was a dreadful campaign - and that’s me being generous,” Anna Soubry, a Tory member of Parliament who narrowly won reelection, told the BBC.
Asked whether May should resign, Soubry replied: “It’s bad. She’s in a very difficult place.”
The Conservatives, bolstered by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, would have 329 seats - just enough to govern. The arrangement is likely to be awkward, since Democratic Unionist leaders, wary of the impact of a hard Brexit on trade and travel with the Republic of Ireland, have sought a softer break than the one May has proposed.
In April, with her popularly spiking and the country seeming to rally around her vow to be a “bloody difficult woman” in talks with European leaders, May stunned Britain with her call for a snap vote that she thought would give her a stronger mandate before the negotiations began.
Observers hailed the move as a cunning bit of political strategy and predicted she would secure the sort of overwhelming parliamentary majority that predecessors Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had enjoyed.
But after that, little went according to plan.
Thursday’s vote follows a turbulent campaign that was interrupted by two mass-casualty terrorist attacks, and that was marked by a faltering performance by May even as Corbyn exceeded expectations.
May - known for her resolute and no-nonsense persona - claimed the nation’s top job only last year, emerging from the political wreckage of the country’s choice to leave the E.U.
Since then she has had only a slender majority in Parliament - won in a 2015 election when the country was governed by her predecessor, David Cameron - and she had feared that without a bigger cushion she would lack the latitude she needs in steering the country to Brexit.
But the approval May enjoyed in office didn’t translate to the campaign trail. A politician who endlessly touted herself as a “strong and stable” finished the race being tagged by critics as “weak and wobbly” after high-profile U-turns, including a particularly disastrous bid to force senior citizens to pay more for social care - a measure derisively dubbed “the dementia tax.”
She also ducked debates, and rarely mingled with voters in unscripted moments.
“We’ve learned what we suspected all along: She’s not particularly fast on her feet, she’s not a natural campaigner, she’s not really a people person,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.
Lacking the common touch, May’s strategy was to focus the campaign on a presidential-style choice between her leadership skills and those of Corbyn. She relentlessly hammered her rival as a far-left throwback to another era who would leave the country vulnerable in both the Brexit talks and at a time of growing terrorist threats.
Corbyn - for decades a backbencher who unexpectedly vaulted to the party’s leadership in 2015 with his Bernie Sanders-style message of taking on the 1 percent - faced a steeply uphill challenge to sell himself as a potential prime minister.
But he was widely seen to have mounted a far more credible challenge than many thought possible, running a nothing-to-lose campaign focused on ending seven years of Tory austerity policies and shrinking the gap between rich and poor.
Like the prime minister, Corbyn halfheartedly favored a vote to “remain” in the E.U. during the Brexit referendum. But also like May, he promised not to obstruct the will of voters and to follow through on their desires if they approved an exit.
May had vowed a hard break with the bloc that leaves Britain outside the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. But she has also promised to deliver a free-trade deal that will preserve the best elements of membership without many of the onerous burdens.
European leaders scoff at such a notion, and say that Britain’s demands for E.U. benefits without responsibilities will have to be denied lest the country’s departure trigger a rush to the exits by other nations demanding the same sweetheart deal.
If she prevails, May also will be under pressure to deliver on pledges to expand the powers of police and other security services following three deadly terrorist attacks this spring, including two in the midst of the campaign.
After the most recent attack - a van-and-knife rampage in London that left eight dead - May said that “enough is enough” and promised a sweeping review of the nation’s counterterrorism rules.
Many observers thought the attacks would play to May’s advantage. But Corbyn managed to flip one of his potential areas of weakness - security - to a strength by hitting out at May for the cuts to police budgets she had authorized as the nation’s home secretary, the top domestic security official.