LONDON — The two top aides to British Prime Minister Theresa May resigned Saturday, shouldering some of the blame for an election that proved a disaster for the Conservative Party, a headache for Britain’s exit from the European Union – and potentially a fatal blow to May’s premiership.
Joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill formed part of May’s small inner circle and were blamed by many Conservatives for the party’s lackluster campaign and unpopular election platform, which alienated older voters with its plan to make them pay more for long-term care.
In a resignation statement on the Conservative Home website, Timothy conceded that the campaign had failed to communicate “Theresa’s positive plan for the future,” and missed signs of surging support for the opposition Labour Party.
Katie Perrior, who quit as May’s communications chief in April, said Timothy and Hill were “great street fighters but poor political leaders” and exercised too much power over the prime minister.
Some senior Tories had made the removal of Hill and Timothy a condition for continuing to support May, who has vowed to remain prime minister despite the Conservatives losing their overall majority in Parliament.
May’s party won 318 seats, eight short of the 326 they needed for an outright majority. The main opposition Labour Party took 262.
The resignations came as May worked to fill jobs in her minority government. May’s office has said that the most senior Cabinet members – including Treasury chief Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Amber Rudd – will keep their jobs, but she is expected to shuffle the lower ranks of ministers.
May announced the party would try to work with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, an alliance that is fraught with difficulties.
May’s Downing St. office said Conservative Chief Whip Gavin Williamson was in Belfast Saturday for talks with the DUP “on how best they can provide support to the government.”
The DUP, whose 10 seats would allow the government to get measures through Parliament, is a socially conservative pro-British Protestant group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and includes both environmentalists and climate-change deniers among its senior ranks.
The DUP was founded in the 1970s by the late firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, and in the 1980s was a key player in the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign, which unsuccessfully fought against the legalization of gay sex.
Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, said she had asked May for assurances that there would be no attack on gay rights after a deal with the DUP.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. in which same-sex marriage is illegal.
“It’s an issue very close to my heart and one that I wanted categoric assurances from the prime minister on, and I received (them),” said Davidson, who is engaged to be married to her female partner.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster recently denied the party was homophobic.
“I could not care less what people get up to in terms of their sexuality. That’s not a matter for me,” she said. “When it becomes a matter for me is when people try to redefine marriage.”
A deal between the government and the DUP could also unsettle the precarious balance between Northern Ireland’s British loyalist and Irish nationalist parties.
May’s authority over her party was shattered by the election result. She called the early election with her party comfortably ahead in the polls in the hope of increasing her majority and strengthening Britain’s hand in exit talks with the European Union.
Instead, the result has sown confusion and division in British ranks, just days before negotiations are due to start on June 19.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, riding a wave of acclaim for his party’s unexpectedly strong showing, called on May to resign.
She seems secure for the immediate future, because senior Conservatives don’t want to plunge the party into a damaging leadership contest. But Britain’s Saturday newspapers agreed she is just clinging on.
“May fights to remain PM,” said the front page of the Daily Telegraph, while the Times of London said: “May stares into the abyss.”