LONDON – Senior members of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government rallied to her defense Monday amid doubts over her ability to remain in power following a disastrous election result.
As the Conservative Party digested the loss of its majority in last week’s election, government officials suggested both the announcement of the prime minister’s agenda, known as the Queen’s Speech, and talks over Britain’s divorce from the European Union could be postponed.
Sky News reported the speech would be delayed a few days — a highly unusual circumstance in a country where the monarch’s schedule is determined months in advance.
The possible delays come as critics urge cross-party discussions to reach a consensus on Britain’s exit from the EU. May’s failure to get a majority has undercut her tough Brexit strategy, which had raised fears that Britain was heading for a so-called “hard Brexit,” which could potentially see tariffs slapped on British exports to the bloc.
May moved to demonstrate that she understands the frustration of voters by moving up a meeting with rank-and-file Conservative Party lawmakers, some of whom have called for her to step aside sooner rather than later. The meeting was being held Monday afternoon instead of Tuesday.
Britain’s press outlets, quoting two unnamed sources from the meeting, said May told lawmakers at the closed-door session that she admitted she was the one “who got us into this mess” and vowed that she would be the “one who will get us out of it.”
The prime minister’s most prominent potential rival, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, sought to quash any suggestion that she would be ousted imminently. Writing in the mass-circulation Sun newspaper, Johnson stressed that the Conservatives won more votes than at any time since Margaret Thatcher and are still the largest party in Parliament.
“The people of Britain have had a bellyful of promises and politicking,” he wrote. “Now is the time for delivery — and Theresa May is the right person to continue that vital work.”
With opinion polls showing the Conservatives had a commanding lead over the opposition Labour Party, May called an early election in hopes of increasing her majority in Parliament and strengthening her position in Brexit negotiations.
Instead, the election stripped May of her majority and obliterated her political authority. The Conservatives are now trying to secure the support of Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party lawmakers to assure passage of May’s program.
Over the weekend, May’s top two aides stepped aside. Many in the party were furious at the pair for shutting them out of decision-making during the election campaign.
May also restored former Justice Secretary Michael Gove to the Cabinet in another move designed to show she was willing to listen to critics. Gove, a long-time opponent who was dismissed when May became prime minister last year, will now serve as environment secretary.
Conservative leaders on Monday sought to shift the debate away from May’s wounded leadership and onto complex Brexit talks, which are formally set to begin next week.
David Davis, the cabinet member in charge of Brexit, said talks with the EU may not start on Monday because it would clash with the Queen’s Speech, but they will still begin next week.
“It may not be on the Monday because we also have got the Queen’s Speech that week and I will have to speak in that, and so on,” he told Sky News.
Davis suggested the government would focus on the divorce proceedings before moving on to trade. The divorce issues include the rights of EU citizens in Britain as well as U.K. citizens in the EU, how much Britain will have to pay to cover previous spending commitments and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The EU has said that sufficient progress must be made on these issues before trade deals can be discussed, though Britain had argued the talks should take place simultaneously.
Moody’s Investors Service said the inconclusive election outcome would complicate and “probably delay” negotiations with the EU.
“Overall, we believe that the election outcome will hamper Brexit negotiations and increase fiscal risks, and therefore be negative for the U.K.’s credit profile,” Moody’s said in a statement.
“However, the Conservative Party’s reduced share of the vote may indicate a higher likelihood that a ‘softer’ form of Brexit might now be pursued, involving compromises with the EU that Ms. May would not have countenanced previously, and which would be positive.”
As the discussion continued, a leading business organization said the political uncertainty is leading to a “dramatic drop” in confidence. The Institute of Directors survey said company directors see no clear way to resolve the political situation quickly. They also believe another election would negatively impact the U.K. economy.
“It is hard to overstate what a dramatic impact the current political uncertainty is having on business leaders, and the consequences could — if not addressed immediately — be disastrous for the U.K. economy,” said Stephen Martin, the director-general of the IoD. “The needs of business and discussion of the economy were largely absent from the campaign, but this crash in confidence shows how urgently that must change in the new government.”