Saturday 24 March 2018

For whom the bell tolls: How UK'S election and Brexit will impact on Ireland

Confidence & supply deal with DUP keeps May in No 10 - but Tory grandees jostle in race to replace her, writes Ben Riley-Smith

Bloodied by an election gamble that backfired and triggered calls for her resignation, Prime Minister Theresa May stood by her vow to form Britain's next government and lead the country out of the European Union. Photo: Getty Images
Bloodied by an election gamble that backfired and triggered calls for her resignation, Prime Minister Theresa May stood by her vow to form Britain's next government and lead the country out of the European Union. Photo: Getty Images

Ben Riley-Smith

British prime minister Theresa May was last night left isolated and undermined as the resignation of her two chiefs of staff failed to stop a furious Tory backlash.

The UK prime minister has been told by ministers she must overhaul her leadership style and change her economic policy if she wants to remain in power for the time being.

Theresa May.
Theresa May.

Protecting business during Brexit talks and handing over more money to the Foreign Office have been named as the price for Cabinet support.

Mrs May has secured short-term backing from senior Tories due to fears that another election could let Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10. But an unofficial race to replace her was already under way as allies of Boris Johnson and David Davis talked up their credentials and briefed against the other.

Figures at the very top of the party now believe she cannot remain leader for long, with some calling for a replacement by the time of the party's conference in October. "This was utterly self-inflicted and completely unavoidable. Her credibility is completely shot at home and abroad," said a minister.

Yesterday's developments included:

A controversial "confidence and supply" deal with the DUP being struck after Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson flew to Belfast for talks;

DUP sources saying they would demand Mrs May abandon parts of her social care plan as their price for support;

The resignation of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May's joint-chiefs of staff, after ultimatums from senior Tories;

A promise from peers and pro-EU Tories to exploit Mrs May's weakness to water down Brexit plans outlined in the party's manifesto;

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, appearing to question whether her 13 MPs would vote for taking Britain out of the single market.

May is still reeling from the unexpected loss of seats at an election that she called to "strengthen her hand" for Brexit talks. Despite starting the campaign with a 20-point poll lead, the Tories ended up beating Labour by just two points.

After securing 318 seats - the largest of any party but 13 less than when she called the vote - it was last night confirmed that a deal had been struck with the DUP - which has 10 MPs. Details will be put to MPs on Monday.

A No 10 spokesman said: "We can confirm that the DUP have agreed to the principles of an outline agreement to support the Conservative Government on a Confidence and Supply basis when parliament returns next week. We welcome this commitment, which can provide the stability and certainty the whole country requires as we embark on Brexit and beyond."

However there were growing concerns among some Conservatives that the party's image could be tarnished by entering a pact with the DUP given that party's criticism of gay marriage.

And there were also questions about whether May can push through her manifesto demands on Brexit, including leaving the single market and customs union.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who wields considerable influence after the Scottish Tories won 13 seats, said: "I want to ensure that we can look again at issues like Brexit - which we know we're going to have to get cross-party support for."

In a hint that curbing immigration could become a lower priority than safeguarding the economy she added: "It is about making sure that we put free trade at the heart of what it is we seek to achieve as we leave."

Mrs May was also working on a Cabinet reshuffle, although the election result makes it less likely she will risk alienating colleagues by making wholesale changes as she cannot afford to have disgruntled former ministers sniping at her from the backbenches.

Last night May attempted to bring stability to Number 10 announcing Gavin Barwell, the former housing minister who failed to win a seat in the election, as her new chief of staff. Mrs May is also considering appointing a deputy prime minister or a new party chairman in an attempt to reach out to seething Tory colleagues.

Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill announced their resignation after pressure from senior Tories. Chancellor Philip Hammond is understood to have expressed his frustration with the pair's attitude to government in a phone call to May on Friday morning.

The 1922 Committee of backbenchers is also understood to have made the pair's departure a "red line" for continuing to support May.

Nick Timothy, who co-wrote the Tory manifesto, issued a statement expressing his "sorrow" at MPs who had lost seats.

He also attempted to shift the blame over the party's social care policy, which was changed within days of the announcement after a backlash. "I would like to make clear that the bizarre media reports about my own role in the policy's inclusion are wrong: it had been the subject of many months of work within Whitehall, and it was not my personal pet project," he said.

Fiona Hill said it had been a privilege to serve and added: "I have no doubt at all that Theresa May will continue to serve and work hard as prime minister, and do it brilliantly."

However the resignations have not stopped speculation. Ministers have privately said they believe May cannot remain leader for long.

"Her going is completely unavoidable. She can't avoid resigning and triggering a leadership election, quite soon," said one minister.

Numerous ministers said that the prime minister would not "lead the party into the next election" and demanded that she become more "collegiate" in the future.

Allies of likely leadership contenders were also briefing journalists.

One Boris Johnson ally said: "Tons of people have reached out to him since the election... They are saying he is the only one who can lead now. David Davis is too old school and pushed for the early election."

A source close to David Davis said they believed he would stand for the leadership if it became vacant and questioned Boris Johnson's suitability for the job. However spokesmen for both men denied any suggestion that they were on manoeuvres and suggested they were "completely" behind Mrs May.

There was also speculation that some Tory MPs could consider signing letters formally demanding that May goes.

Almost two thirds of Tory Party members want Theresa May to resign, a survey found yesterday. The snap survey of 1,500 Tory party members revealed that 60pc believed Mrs May should resign and trigger a leadership contest.

Just 37pc said they thought Mrs May should remain in post as Tory MPs warned that the relationship between the party's leadership and its grassroots needed to be improved.

The survey has prompted Tory MPs to express concerns about the way in which the campaign was fought and at the centralised nature of decision-making under May.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Tory MP for the Cotswolds, said grassroots disquiet needed to be heeded as there was a "distinct feeling" Tory members are not consulted enough on the party's direction.


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