LONDON — The pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to step aside following a humiliating election result grew Saturday, with her two top aides resigning, a leading newspaper pronouncing her “fatally wounded” and a former minister acknowledging that Tories were plotting possible replacements via the messaging service WhatsApp.
The aides who resigned, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, May’s fiercely loyal co-chiefs of staff, had been widely blamed within the prime minister’s Conservative Party for the lackluster campaign that ended with the Tories losing their majority in Parliament.
Their departures were seen Saturday as a Downing Street bid to stave off a far more dramatic resignation: that of the prime minister herself.
But it was unclear whether it would be enough, with some Conservatives acknowledging that May has effectively become a lame-duck leader following a vote that was supposed to give her a resounding mandate for the next five years, but instead morphed into a stinging rejection that could end her premiership within days.
May has insisted she will not step aside, and will instead form a new government that will lead the country through the treacherous currents of the Brexit talks to come.
Several senior members of her Conservative Party have backed her, saying the country can’t afford the chaos of starting to pick a new leader only days before negotiations with European leaders are to kick off.
But other senior Tories have been conspicuous in their silence, and behind the scenes the party has been engaged in fevered debate over whether to push for May’s ouster — if not now, then perhaps in several months after Britain’s E.U. divorce talks have launched.
If May does move out of 10 Downing Street, it would be the second time in the past year that Britain has been left leaderless after a Tory prime minister gambled and lost in calling a national vote.
May came to office last summer after her predecessor, David Cameron, called a referendum on an exit from the European Union, a move he opposed. The referendum passed, and Cameron resigned the next morning.
The question of whether May will stay on is taking longer to answer — at least in part because no one expected her to lose Thursday, and therefore no one in her party had prepared for the possibility of trying to topple her.
Downing Street announced Saturday night that the Conservatives had agreed in principle to a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland that will give May an extremely narrow majority in Parliament. While that technically means she has the necessary votes to carry on, she will have to step down if enough Tories move against her.
The Conservatives have a long history of unsentimentally sacking their leaders — Margaret Thatcher among them — when they have become more liability than asset.
In an indication of just how quickly the mood in the Tory inner sanctum was turning against May, a former senior Downing Street aide told the BBC Saturday morning that May’s office had been “dysfunctional” and “toxic.”
Katie Perrior, who was until recently the prime minister’s director of communications, also implied that May was out of her depth after being elevated from home secretary to prime minister last July.
“Trying to make that change to Number 10 was more difficult than she possibly anticipated,” Perrior said.
Perrior called May “a good person,” but blamed Hill and Timothy, who have been the prime minister’s closest advisers and were at the heart of a Downing Street operation that many in the party saw as controlling and exclusionary.
The BBC reported that May had been warned by senior Tory lawmakers that unless Hill and Timothy were ousted, the prime minister would face an internal party challenge to her leadership by Monday morning.
In her resignation statement, Hill said she had “no doubt at all that Theresa May will continue to serve and work hard as prime minister – and do it brilliantly.”
The exits of Hill and Timothy were publicly cheered by Tory lawmaker Nigel Evans, who wrote on Twitter that “resignations of advisors must be the start - inclusive style of governance must follow.”
But others dismissed the move as a stalling tactic that doesn’t address the real problem in May’s government: May herself.
Until the early hours of Friday, when the disastrous results came into focus, she had enjoyed overwhelming popularity among the Tory rank-and-file. But that seems to have already changed.
An unscientific poll of party members by the ConservativeHome website, a popular gathering spot for Tory activists, showed that 60 percent wanted May to step down.
The mood was reflected in the Saturday papers, which made for grim reading for May after the shock of Friday, with even her most fawning outlets piling on blame.
The Daily Mail, an anti-immigrant, nationalist tabloid that has spent the past year cheering on May, published a photo of a graven-faced prime minister along with the headline “Tories Turn on Theresa.”
The Times of London, a beacon of establishment conservatism that had enthusiastically endorsed the prime minister, published an editorial arguing that she had created “a national emergency” by misjudging the mood of the country and that she was now left “fatally wounded.”
“If she does not realize this it is another grave misjudgment,” the paper wrote. “More likely, she is steeling herself to provide what continuity she can as her party girds itself for an election to replace her.”
That seemed to be well underway Saturday. Former minister Ed Vaizey told the BBC that he supports May staying on, but that Tories were discussing possible replacements. Asked whether members were calling one another to plot May’s ouster this weekend, he denied it.
“That’s so 20th century,” he said. “It’s all on WhatsApp.”
Few Tories have publicly demanded that she step aside. But the defenses of the prime minister have been notably muted. Most have argued less that May is the right person for the job than that now – with Brexit talks only days away -- is not the right time for her to step down.
“Voters do not want further months of uncertainty and upheaval,” William Hague, a former party leader and former foreign secretary, wrote in the Telegraph. “They want to see ministers getting on with the job, while acknowledging democracy and their constrained circumstances.”
Other top Conservatives – including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – have been all but invisible since the election, prompting speculation that they are at least considering launching a challenge to May.
Phillip Lee, a junior minister under May, said in an interview that he did not believe she should step down, but that the government would have to respond to the voters’ will by changing its direction on crucial issues — including Brexit, where he said a softer approach may be required than the hard break May has pitched.
“Voters don’t accept what we put before them,” he said. “We need to think again and come back with a fresh approach.”
Lee said he did not sense “a strong push to remove her now” among Tory lawmakers. But, he acknowledged, “maybe I’m in the wrong WhatsApp group.”
Under Conservative Party rules, it takes support from at least 48 out of the party’s 318 parliamentarians to trigger a leadership contest. The selection process would last months, with the party’s lawmakers first winnowing the field to two and then rank-and-file members choosing between the finalists, one of whom would become the new prime minister.
May was quiet on Saturday, a day after delivering a defiant speech in front of Downing Street in which she vowed to carry on and made no mention of the crushing election results delivered only hours earlier.
On Saturday evening, the prime minister’s office announced a new chief of staff -- former minister Gavin Barwell — and at least the basis for a deal in which the Democratic Unionists will support May, but not formally join her government.
May has said she intends to press ahead with Brexit talks, which are due to begin June 19 and need to be completed by March 2019.
E.U. leaders have been impatient to start the negotiations, a point underlined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, who said there would be no delay – political upheaval in London not withstanding.
“In the next few days these talks will begin,” she told reporters while on a visit to Mexico. “We will defend the interests of the 27 member states, and Britain will defend its own interests.”