Johnson’s role in Britain’s negotiations over its future relationship with the EU is likely to be limited because May has appointed senior Conservative lawmaker David Davis to a new ministerial post focused exclusively on Brexit issues.
But Johnson – who has never previously held a cabinet post and was until recently been seen as May’s main rival for the prime minister’s job – will have to address questions about the country’s role in the world after its exit from the EU and will inherit Britain’s often difficult relationship with Russia.
May began appointing her cabinet almost immediately after assuming office following an audience with Queen Elizabeth.
The former Conservative interior minister said she would champion social justice and carve out a bright new future for Britain after last month’s shock referendum vote to quit the EU.
“We will rise to the challenge,” she said outside 10 Downing Street, vacated hours earlier by David Cameron.
“As we leave the European Union we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
Cameron stepped down after Britons rejected his entreaties to stay in the EU, a decision that has set back European efforts to forge greater unity and created huge uncertainty in Britain and across the 28-nation bloc.
Just over an hour after entering her new office, May began naming ministers, appointing the steady and experienced foreign minister Philip Hammond to take charge of the finance ministry.
He replaces George Osborne, whose determination to balance Britain’s books made him synonymous with austerity.
Other prominent “Leave” campaigners were also rewarded alongside Johnson and Davis, including Liam Fox, named to head a new international trade department.
May herself had sided with Cameron in trying to keep Britain inside the EU, so needed to reach out to the winning Leave side in order to heal divisions in the ruling party and show her commitment to respecting the popular vote. “Brexit means Brexit” has quickly become her new mantra.
By awarding such a senior job to Johnson, she also showed a conciliatory side. The two had clashed over policing in London while Johnson was serving as mayor.
And since last month’s vote, for which he campaigned vigorously, Johnson had suffered widespread criticism and ridicule for failing to present a clear Brexit plan and swiftly dropping out of the leadership race.
With his unkempt blonde hair, bumbling humour and penchant for Latin quotations, the man known to Britons simply as “Boris” will be the government’s most colourful figure, but a controversial choice for conducting sensitive diplomacy with world leaders.
Among other appointments, rising star Amber Rudd switched from the energy ministry to take May’s old job as Home Secretary.
May will be Queen Elizabeth’s 13th prime minister in a line that started with Winston Churchill. An official photograph showed her curtseying to the smiling monarch.
She is also Britain’s second female head of government after Margaret Thatcher.
Seen as a tough, competent and intensely private person, already being compared to Germany’s Angela Merkel, she must now try to limit the damage to British trade and investment as she renegotiates the country’s ties with its 27 EU partners.
She will also attempt to unite a fractured nation in which many, on the evidence of the referendum, feel angry with the political elite and left behind by the forces of globalisation.
In comments addressed to ordinary Britons, she spoke of the “burning injustice” suffered by large sections of society: poor people facing shorter life expectancy; blacks treated more harshly by the criminal justice system; women earning less than men; the mentally ill; and young people struggling to buy homes.
Acknowledging the struggles faced by many people, May declared: “The government I lead will be driven not be the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.”
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