A chastened Theresa May is attempting to move on from her botched election gamble, under intense pressure from members of her own cabinet and Tory backbenchers to dramatically improve her game.
The Prime Minister spent the day in difficult conversations with senior ministers, whose support she now desperately needs despite having likely planned to sack some just 48 hours ago when she expected to win the election outright.
The Independent understands a key issue raised was that of the role of her two most senior aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who many Tories see as having undue power at the centre of government.
Ahead of what is promising to be a bruising meeting with Tory backbenchers next week, MPs publicly questioned Ms May’s position and her campaign, with one even branding it “madness”, while others demanded changes to her Brexit strategy and raised concerns about a deal with the Northern Irish DUP.
Government sources also told The Independent Ms May’s need to win the unionists’ support to govern could cause her problems in Westminster, as it may commit her to spending on public services in Ulster that she cannot replicate elsewhere.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour leader appeared rock-solid, with former critics admitting his more open and engaging campaign had been an effective foil to Ms May’s stale, stage-managed appearances.
Going into the election, reports emerged of Ms May’s post-vote plans to reshuffle her top team, with prominent figures like Chancellor Philip Hammond, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson either facing the sack or being moved.
But the tables were turned after Ms May’s credibility was damaged following the election result – which saw the Tories lose 12 seats, eight held by ministers. By Friday morning it was the Prime Minister’s job in question.
Just after 5pm Downing Street confirmed Mr Hammond, Mr Johnson, Mr Davis, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon had all retained their posts. Allies of Mr Johnson's denied reports he had been “on manoeuvres” to replace Ms May and said, along with colleagues, that the top ministers primary concern was to ensure the stability of the Government going into Brexit talks.
But The Independent understands other concerns were raised about the handling of the campaign and the role of Ms May’s all-powerful aides, who some blame for its failures. In particular the humiliating U-turn on a social care policy said to have been dropped into the manifesto at the last minute without proper consultation. A source said: “It was raised. Theresa is Prime Minister and it’s right that she grasps the nettle of difficult policy, but there is a wisdom to not doing detailed stuff in the middle of campaign that was lost.”
The criticism was not reserved to the Cabinet. One ousted MP who had been a minister, Rob Wilson, said of the social care U-turn: “Looking back on it, it was madness to do it, particularly as it had never, as I understand it, been floated before.”
By Friday afternoon two MPs, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen, had already questioned the Prime Minister’s chances of remaining in post in radio and television interviews. On Tuesday the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee will meet, where all angry backbenchers will interrogate Ms May over her failures.
One MP said: “If she’s got sense, and I think she does, she will want to come and explain herself, get over the pain and difficulty and try and get people behind her.”
Another backbencher commented: “MPs have already been receiving mail from constituents about a possible coalition with DUP and what that might mean. There’s an issue with LGBT rights and there will be a full and frank exchange.”
At lunchtime on Friday Ms May gave a workmanlike speech outside Downing Street, setting out her plans for a DUP deal, but failing to acknowledge the problems with her campaign. In an apparent effort to ensure MPs saw her showing contrition, she later did an interview giving a full apology to those who lost seats.
A visibly nervous Prime Minister said: “I am sorry for those candidates and hard-working party workers who weren't successful, but also particularly sorry for those colleagues who were MPs or ministers who had contributed so much to our country and who lost their seats and didn't deserve to lose their seats.”
She went on to promise that in the wake of her losses she would “reflect on what we need to do in the future to take the party forward”.
Former Cabinet minister Baroness Warsi also questioned a deal with the DUP, tweeting: “Short term political gain will lead to long term toxic Conservatives brand on #climatechange #LGBT rights #abortion and other imp issues.”
After frantic consultations with DUP leader Arlene Foster, the Prime Minister headed to Buckingham Palace to seek the formal permission of the Queen to form a new government, returning to No 10 to announce she had the “legitimacy” to continue in office.
Senior DUP figures made clear they were looking at a limited “confidence and supply” arrangement – rather than a more formal coalition – leading to some MPs to predict that there could another general election before the year is out.
One government source told The Independent that their demands were likely to be for more money, with infrastructure and services likely to be at the top of the party's wish-list. Asked if giving favoured spending to Northern Ireland might be a problem elsewhere, the source said: “It doesn’t matter. They’ll do it, It’s only a small nation in the grand scheme of things.
“The DUP are experts at playing this game. They know exactly what they want, but are never going to get too close to us.”
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