22nd Mar 2018

May clings to power with Northern Irish unionists

  • May is expected to face leadership challenges within her party (Photo: Reuters)

UK prime minister Theresa May defied calls to step down from office, and announced the formation of a minority government on Friday (9 June), with the help of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party (DUP). But May's position has weakened.

Thursday’s general election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives winning 318 seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority government. The opposition party, Labour, received 261 seats of the total 650 in the House of Commons.

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May made clear that she wants to govern for the next 5 years.

"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 a statement after meeting with the Queen.

She said that the Tories and the DUP, Northern Ireland’s leading unionist party, "have enjoyed a strong relationship over many years" and that this gives her "the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom."

DUP's leader, Arlene Foster, said that the party will enter into negotiations with May to "explore how it may be possible to bring stability” to the country.

The question is how long May will stay on. For now, she has managed to hold onto power, but after losing the majority in parliament the knives are coming out.

Experts say a new election seems unavoidable.

"Its going to be difficult to stay on, there is no one else to blame for the election loss. MPs will be very worried about her leading them into a new election maybe within the year," Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told EUobserver.

However, with Brexit talks set to start in 10 days, the Conservatives have little time for a leadership crisis.

"What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” May warned in her statement.

But a Tory leadership race has already kicked off, reportedly, with Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign minister Boris Johnson feeling out the mood.

On Friday, May also confirmed that Brexit negotiations would start in 10 days. The clock is ticking: unless she gets the consent of the other 27 EU leaders, the UK will be out of the union in March 2019.

In her brief speech, May did not give any hints as to whether she would change her position on striving for a hard Brexit, which would entail pulling the UK out of the customs union, as well as the EU's single market.

European Council chief Donald Tusk congratulated May in a letter urging to start the talks swiftly.

"The timeframe set by Article 50 of the Treaty leaves us with no time to lose. I am fully committed to maintaining regular and close contact at our level to facilitate the work of our negotiators,” Tusk wrote.

End of hard Brexit?

Some Tory politicians took the electoral beating as a sign that voters are not interested in a hard Brexit.

Nevertheless, experts have warned against concluding that the vote was an outright "no" to May’s vision for a hard Brexit.

“In some respects it is a Remain revenge when it comes to young people,” Tim Bale said, referring to the large number of young voters who cast their ballot and are more favourable towards EU membership.

“It [the result] gives any rational prime minister reason for pause to think, but when it comes to Europe and the Conservatives, there is not a lot of rationality we can talk about,” he quipped.

House reinforced

The minority cabinet will give more of a voice to the UK parliament in Brexit talks, which could tame May’s hard positions, for example on leaving the customs union.

“The elections further complicated the UK’s negotiating leverage,” Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform, told EUobserver.

"The fact that she is forming a minority government, [and] that Labour has strengthened, might result in the parliament putting more pressure on her stance, demanding greater scrutiny, and for her to reveal her positions,” she said.

While Labour has been more flexible on some Brexit issues, the party has been more evasive on the issue of the single market, Gostynska-Jakubowska added. The party has said that it wanted Britain to hold onto the benefits of the single market and customs union, but didn’t say if it wanted the UK to leave.

The result could also prompt the EU "to exploit concerns on hard Brexit", Bale said.

Any minority government would have difficulty delivering results, which makes negotiations more difficult.

Correction: The headline originally said: May clings to power with Irish unionists. The corrected version says "Northern Irish unionists" to make clear that the headline refers to the DUP party.

EU leaders closing in on May

From warning about a delay for Brexit talks to calls for resignation, EU political leaders are putting pressure on the British prime minister.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May loses election bet

The British prime minister called the election to strengthen her grip on power ahead of Brexit talks. Her gamble could not have backfired more spectacularly.

May's Tories fail to secure majority

[Updated] British elections produce a hung parliament, with Conservatives failing to secure majority, while still being the largest party in the House of Commons.

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Coalition, chaos and lame-ducks

Shell-shocked MPs returned to a Westminster that has become part-implausible soap opera and part-Game of Thrones.


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Glib comparisons with the US-Canada border, or municipal boundaries within London, do not stand up to scrutiny - or the reality of an internal Irish border with 275 crossing points in a land beset by 30 years of armed conflict.

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