No single party won an overall parliamentary majority in Britain’s June 8 snap election, severely diminishing the stature of Prime Minister Theresa May with only days to go before negotiations begin over withdrawal from the European Union.
May’s Conservative Party won the most seats by the slimmest of margins, but lost its majority to form an effective government — an enormous blow for the Prime Minister, who called the election in order to consolidate power.
With all but one of the seats declared, the Conservatives, or “Tories,” had taken 318 seats, which means voters have elected their second hung parliament in less than a decade. The Conservatives announced Friday morning they would enter into a coalition deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, which won 10 seats.
In a short statement outside her official residence in 10 Downing Street, May made no reference to the election result, but said she would form a government “that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country.”
The result calls into question May’s future as leader of the party, and the country. Several Conservatives, including former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, suggested she couldn’t continue as Prime Minister. “We’ll fall in behind her but we’re talking about weeks,” a senior minister told Sky News. “She can’t continue [longer term] because her credibility is shot, not just at home but abroad.”
But a source within government told TIME May was “safe for the foreseeable future,” and speculated there would be no leadership contest in the current feverish political moment. “Who in their right mind would want to step into those shoes now and land themselves with that Brexit bag of cr*p?”
The result is being billed as one of the biggest political upsets in the country’s history, with the Labour Party of far-left Jeremy Corbyn defying expectations and projected to gain 265 seats in Parliament. Corbyn suggested he too would be ready to form a government. “I think it’s pretty clear who won this election,” he told the BBC on Friday morning. “We’re ready to serve the people who have given their trust to us.”
The hung parliament has some analysts speculating about a second general election, which would further destabilize upcoming Brexit negotiations that are expected to start on June 19.
Back in April, the prime minister called the election as polls pointed to a landslide result for the her party. The gamble backfired. On Friday morning, it became clear the Tories lost seats in the south of the country while failing to break into Labour’s heartlands up north.
The huge setback dashes May’s hopes to strengthen her hand in the upcoming “Brexit” negotiations with the E.U. Brexit Secretary David Davis suggesting to Sky News that the lost majority could amount to the Tories losing their mandate for a “hard Brexit”— where the country would leave both the E.U. customs and single market.
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, appeared to confirm as such when asked about joining a possible coalition government with the Tories. “No-one wants to see a hard Brexit, what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union. That’s what the national vote was about and therefore we need to get on with that.” Brexit presents a thorny challenge to Northern Ireland, which shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the E.U.
Still, the referendum was not the main issue informing Thursday’s vote. “[Labour] made a really positive offer to an electorate who is fed up with austerity, that has doubts about globalization, and the neo-liberal economic model we have had for so long,” Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London tells TIME.
The most significant defeats of the night included Conservative minister Ben Gummer and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, who both lost their seats to Labour challengers. The pound tumbled by close to 2% after an initial BBC exit poll, which predicted a hung parliament.
With reporting by Mark Leftly