By Kate Holton and William James
LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May was fighting for survival on Saturday after a failed election gamble undermined her authority and plunged the country into a major political crisis days before talks to leave the European Union start.
May's bet that she could strengthen her hand by crushing what she believed to be a weak opposition Labour Party backfired spectacularly on Thursday as voters stripped her Conservative Party of a parliamentary majority.
The stunning outcome leaves May battling to unite different factions of her party and reliant on a handful of Northern Irish parliamentarians just nine days before Britain starts the tortuous process of negotiating its departure from the EU.
Britain's typically pro-Conservative press savaged May and questioned whether she could remain in power only two months after officially triggering the country's divorce from the European bloc.
Britain's best-selling Sun newspaper said senior members of the party had vowed to get rid of May, but would wait at least six months because they were worried that a leadership contest could propel Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into power.
"She's staying, for now," one Conservative Party source told Reuters.
May called the snap election to win a clear mandate for her plan to take Britain out of the EU's single market and customs union, so she could slash immigration.
But her party is deeply divided over what they want from Brexit and the result means British businesses still have no idea what trading rules they can expect in the coming years.
The British pound tumbled against the U.S. dollar and the euro after the election result.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she assumed Britain still wanted to leave the European Union and that talks must start quickly.
German politician and EU executive member Guenther Oettinger said, however, that a weak British leader increased the risk negotiations would turn out badly.
Elmar Brok, a German conservative and the European Parliament's top Brexit expert, told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper talks would be complicated by May's formation of a minority government.
"May won't be able to make any compromises because she lacks a broad parliamentary majority," he said.
Less than a year after May was propelled into Downing Street following Britain's surprise referendum decision to leave the EU, party insiders were placing bets on how long she could last.
"Theresa May is certainly the strongest leader that we have at the moment," lawmaker David Jones told the BBC. He said it was impossible to predict whether she would still be prime minister at the end of the year.
Owen Paterson, a senior Conservative lawmaker, said "let's see how it pans out", when asked about May's future.
"It is not the outcome any of us would have wanted in the Conservative Party. But we are nine days off from the Brexit talks starting," he told BBC Radio
The Times newspaper's front page declared "May stares into the abyss". It said Britain was "effectively leaderless" and the "country all but ungovernable".
"The Conservatives have not yet broken the British system of democracy, but through their hubris and incompetence they have managed to make a mockery of it," it said in an editorial. "The task of restoring orderly government in order to make sense of Brexit is now a national emergency, and it falls to them."
The Telegraph newspaper said senior Conservatives including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, interior minister Amber Rudd and Brexit minister David Davis were taking soundings over whether to replace May.
FRAUGHT WITH RISK
After confirming on Friday that her top five ministers, including finance minister Philip Hammond, would keep their jobs, May was expected to appoint a team that will take on one of the most demanding negotiations in British history.
She said Brexit talks would begin on June 19 as scheduled, the same day as the formal reopening of parliament.
If she is to succeed in delivering the wishes of 52 percent of the public and take Britain out of the EU, she must find a way to secure the full support of her party to pass legislation preparing for and enacting the departure.
May will also need the support of the socially conservative, pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won 10 seats in Northern Ireland.
The two parties are broadly politically aligned, but it remains to be seen what price the DUP will demand for its support. Several Conservative lawmakers, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, have also raised concerns about the DUP's opposition to same-sex marriage.
Davidson, one of the few Conservatives to emerge as a winner from the election after she increased the party's presence in Scotland, said she had demanded, and received, "categoric assurance" from May that the policy would not change.
One DUP lawmaker suggested support for May could come vote by vote, making the job of governing fraught with risk.
"As I reflect on the results I will reflect on what we need to do in the future to take the party forward," May said on Friday in a televised statement.