READING, England — Theresa May, who was elevated to the British premiership under the unlikeliest of circumstances, will now see her power curtailed, in a vote as unexpected as Britain’s decision last year to leave the European Union.
As was the case with the spectacular fall of David Cameron, her Conservative predecessor who resigned after losing the Brexit vote he had initiated, May’s wound is self-inflicted. She called Thursday’s snap election in a bid to strengthen her hand ahead of difficult divorce negotiations with the European bloc.
Buoyed by polls that suggested she would eviscerate the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, May did not campaign vigorously. She skipped debates and spoke in sound bites when she addressed voters, whom she promised “strong and stable leadership.”
Britain responded by dealing a devastating blow to her leadership, putting her future as prime minister at risk even if she is able to continue governing in the short-term. A projection based on nearly nationwide results indicated the Conservatives would send 319 members to Parliament, seven shy of a working majority in the 650-member body.
The disappointing result immediately prompted calls for May to resign. Corbyn said early Friday it was time for her “to go.” Tim Farron, leader of the center-left Liberal Democrats, said May “should be ashamed.”
“Like David Cameron before her, our Conservative prime minister rolled the dice and put the future of our country at risk,” Farron told supporters. “If she has an ounce of self-respect, she will resign.”
Even as many in her own party appeared to rally around her — or at least hold their tongues — some acknowledged that their leader had stumbled.
“I think she’s in a very difficult place,” Anna Soubry, a Conservative member of Parliament and former government minister, said on the BBC. “She now obviously has to consider her position.”
Ed Vaizey, another Conservative colleague, offered faint reassurance, telling the BBC that “we want Theresa May to carry on as leader of the party and prime minister.” But he declined to say whether she should be allowed to stand as leader in another general election.
Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative member of Parliament, criticized the election campaign and called for May’s inner circle of special advisers to be removed.
“Hope we never again have such a negative campaign. The public just don’t want US-style attack politics,” she tweeted.
May resisted calls to step down, saying after a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II that she would form a new government by working with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
“I will now form a government — a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country,” said a grim-faced May in brief remarks outside her Downing Street offices. “This government will guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days and deliver on the will of the British people by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union.”
Addressing voters in her home constituency of Maidenhead earlier Friday, May appeared shaken, although she said she had not lost her resolve.
“The country needs a period of stability,” she said. “Whatever the results are, the Conservative party will ensure that we fulfill our duty in ensuring that stability.”
Voters in Maidenhead, dismayed by the results, said May’s image on the campaign trail did not match her one-on-one interactions in the district.
“She’s so hands-on and approachable,” said Barbara Reid, 71. “She took a gamble that didn’t pay off.”
May had said repeatedly that there would be no new election. But in April, on a vacation with her husband in Wales, she changed her mind, and she returned to London to deliver a surprise announcement: Britain would go back to the polls, less than a year after it had voted on its place in Europe.
At first, it seemed sensible enough, as her position in opinion surveys suggested she would sail back to Downing Street with a hefty majority. She adopted a hard line on immigration and globalization, arguing that only she was in a position to secure Britain’s future outside Europe. When a colleague called her a “bloody difficult woman,” she recast the disparagement as a tribute, pledging to go toe-to-toe with European leaders in Brussels.
What was difficult, however, was convincing voters that she stood for anything but staying the course, a future rejected by those hostile to Brexit, hostile to the government’s record of cuts or simply hostile to a leader who seemed unwilling to roll up her sleeves and work for her majority.
One district near her own, in Reading, offered a window into the damage done to the Conservatives, whose incumbent, Rob Wilson, lost his seat to his Labour opponent, Matt Rodda. Wilson, in office since 2005, had been minister for civil society. He was among several top officials to lose their seats. Rodda, a local council member and former civil servant, capitalized on a 16 percent swing to Labour. He also benefited from 73 percent turnout.
A rail and commercial hub and home to a major university, Reading revealed that May’s embrace of a severe version of Brexit, designed to win over supporters of the U.K. Independence Party, carried costs.
Simon Round, a 44-year-old Labour voter here, said political moods have shifted as people, many of them young and pro-Europe, have moved south from London to Reading.
“I’m a ‘remain’ voter; I don’t want a hard Brexit,” said Jo Purdey, 46, who has voted for different parties in the past but saw Labour as the main force of opposition to May’s government.
Even Conservative voters observed an enthusiasm gap. Dawn Harvey, 49, said Labour signs decorated her neighborhood — mainly, she said, because of “anger about Brexit,” which she had supported as a way to take back control of the country.
Valerie Richardson, 66, said May, whom she admires, had been poorly advised.
“It was silly to call the vote because she was doing so well,” Richardson said. “The country’s down the pan if she doesn’t get herself together.”
May’s steep fall stunned Britain, casting doubt on her credibility in negotiations over the terms of Britain’s exit from the E.U. May herself said she needed a muscular majority to secure a good deal.
“A few months ago, Theresa May looked the most authoritative prime minister in more than a decade,” said Matthew Francis, a political historian at the University of Birmingham. “This morning, she looks like the biggest political failure in the Conservative Party’s recent history.”
May’s troubles mounted as the campaign wore on, the 20-point lead she initially enjoyed evaporating in the contest’s final days. One flashpoint was criticism over a Conservative pledge to rewrite the way elderly people pay for their social care, a campaign promise from which May had to backpedal. And following a deadly terrorist attack five days before the vote, she also faced criticism over her previous tenure as home secretary. Her critics argued that she had been responsible for national defense at a time when the Conservative government oversaw cuts to the police.
Labour’s broadside against austerity struck a chord, particularly with younger voters, who appear to have confounded turnout expectations.
Timothy Heppell, a political scientist at the University of Leeds, said the Conservative campaign was held back by May’s “focus on Brexit and her neglect of other issues that relate to standards of living.”
Even on Brexit, however, the Conservatives appear to have miscalculated.
“The Conservatives anticipated that many of those who voted UKIP in 2015 and then for Brexit in 2016 would switch to Conservative, especially in the Labour-held marginals,” said Ron Johnston, an expert on the political geography of Britain at the University of Bristol, referring to districts where the Labour incumbent was vulnerable.
“They got it wrong,” he said. “In the Labour-held marginals, many former UKIP voters went back to Labour rather than switch to the Tories. Brexit didn’t matter to them — and many of them, especially the old, were put off the Tories by their policies on social care and pensions.”