LONDON — On the day after British voters delivered an astonishing repudiation of Prime Minister Theresa May at the very moment that she had expected to be her crowning glory, she tried to go on as though nothing much had changed.
She would stay on as prime minister. She would keep her cabinet’s elite circle. Her plans for Brexit would go forward.
“That’s what people voted for last June,” she announced defiantly outside 10 Downing Street after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II to discuss her new government. “That’s what we’ll deliver. Now let’s get to work.”
But beneath the bravado was a creeping reality: A year after voters stunned the establishment with a vote to get out of the European Union, they had done it once more. In the process, they may have thrust a dagger through the heart of a young premiership that only days ago had looked to be on the verge of achieving power of Thatcher-esque proportions.
“It’s not clear to me that Theresa May is going to survive the next few days,” said Ian Kearns, co-founder of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank. “The level of damage that she’s done to her own brand is immense. The rebellion against her is just getting started.”
At the very least, Kearns and other observers said Friday, May will have to thoroughly rethink her plans for Brexit only days before critical talks with the European Union are due to launch. An uncompromising demand for a hard break from Europe may have to be downgraded to a far more modest rupture, Kearns said, perhaps even one that doesn’t look much like an exit at all.
Outwardly, May showed no signs of yielding to that pressure on Friday. Just hours after her voice broke as she offered her first, shaky 3 a.m. response to an election that would end with her Conservative Party losing its majority in Parliament, she was grim-faced and joyless as she stood in the midday sun in front of her Downing Street offices and announced she would stay on as prime minister.
“I will now form a government — a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country,” she said.
Not once did she mention the election that she had gambled would give her enhanced powers, but instead left her grievously wounded.
Behind the scenes, members of her own party were discussing whether to keep her – with some concluding that, sooner or later, she would have to go. Some were even taking their case public.
“I don’t believe personally that Theresa May will stay as our prime minister indefinitely,” Heidi Allen, a Tory member of Parliament, told LBC Radio. “In my view, it may well be just a period of transition.”
With murmurs of a party coup building, May sought to buy herself time. She reappointed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and other top ministers — several of whom are potential plotters, and would-be replacements if she is deposed.
She also promised there would be no delays in negotiations with the European Union, which are scheduled to begin June 19.
“What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” she insisted.
But that was one thing Britain clearly lacked.
The results from Thursday’s vote did not create any immediate path for the country to walk back from the Brexit brink. But the outcome instantly complicated — if not scuttled altogether — May’s meticulously laid strategy for getting out of the E.U., while also heightening doubts that she can reach a deal with European leaders over the next two years.
Without an agreement, Britain would crash out of the bloc and face giving up all the privileges of membership. Some lawmakers have pushed for Parliament to be allowed an emergency brake that would keep the country in should the talks fail.
At the very least, May could be forced to rethink her objectives in the negotiations, perhaps pushing for a softer break than the one she had sold to the public this spring.
Late in the day, May suggested she could be considering a course change, telling broadcasters that she would take time to “reflect” on an election that left her authority in tatters and tipped the scales in favor of her political opponents, including a once-hapless far-left Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Final results in nearly every district nationwide put the Conservatives at 318 seats — eight 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 won 261 seats — an unexpected gain of dozens of seats under Corbyn.
For May, those results were precisely the opposite of what she had hoped. May called the snap election seeking to strengthen her hand in the E.U. negotiations and to further sideline her political critics.
But with her slender majority having vanished overnight, May was put in the humiliating position of having to woo Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party — with 10 seats it is Parliament’s fifth-largest — into a deal just to have any hope of mustering the majority needed to keep the Tories in power.
Even that could prove difficult. May said outside 10 Downing Street that the DUP would back her government.
But a deal is not yet sealed. The leader of the Democratic Unionists, Arlene Foster, said on Friday afternoon that talks were still underway.
When asked if May would be able to remain as prime minister, Foster told the BBC on Friday that she was unsure, adding, “I think it will be difficult.”
Foster’s party will likely strike a tough bargain with the Tories. The Democratic Unionists backed leaving the European Union but have opposed elements of May’s line in the E.U. divorce proceedings — especially provisions that could affect trade and movement on either side of the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.
The political wreckage of Thursday’s vote also included Paul Nuttall, who stepped down as leader of the U.K. Independence Party. The anti-immigration party had led the charge for Brexit, but its support cratered this year: It won just 2 percent of the vote, compared to 13 percent in 2015.
Scottish nationalists — seeking a boost ahead of an expected second independence referendum — were also dealt a debilitating setback that raised questions about whether the referendum plans will be scrapped.
But the election’s biggest loser was undoubtedly the woman who had decided to call it: May.
The loss was widely interpreted in Britain as a personal repudiation of a politician who seemed to have charmed the country only months ago with her vow to be a “bloody difficult woman” in exit negotiations with her E.U. counterparts.
Now it’s unclear whether she’ll even make it to the negotiating table when talks begin.
May has vowed a hard break with the bloc, one 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 would preserve the best elements of membership without many of the onerous burdens.
European leaders have insisted that such a sweetheart arrangement is not possible.
On Friday, continental leaders expressed fresh frustration with the latest twist in Britain’s drama-laden departure.
European Council President Donald Tusk responded to the vote by saying there was “no time to lose” to start the talks so they can be finished by the spring of 2019.
The E.U. foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, complained that “we still don’t know the British position in the negotiations on Brexit.”
Kearns said May’s best hope for keeping her job would be to “bin the entire approach she’s taken so far to Brexit and go back to the drawing board.”
Instead of the clean break from Europe she’s sought, Kearns said May would find cross-party support for a softer separation that leaves Britain formally outside the E.U. but with many of the same attachments that define its relationship to the bloc today.
But without that sort of pivot, he said, May’s time in power is likely running out.
“If she tries to stick with the same approach, her own party will remove her,” Kearns said. “Because they understand that her strategy is doomed to failure.”