A Change of Guard

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Friday, 15 July 2016

British PM May gets down to work under Brexit pressure

Posted 14 Jul 2016 
Channel News Asia

LONDON: Theresa May began her first full day as British prime minister on Thursday (Jul 14) under immediate pressure to implement Brexit, after stunning observers by picking gaffe-prone "Leave" campaigner Boris Johnson as her top diplomat.

EU leaders were quick to congratulate Britain's new premier, whose appointment brought some stability following three tumultuous weeks since the country voted to leave the European Union, but urged her to move quickly.

The result sparked turmoil on the financial markets and the Bank of England was meeting later Thursday to discuss whether to cut interest rates to ward off the risk of recession.

May appointed former cabinet colleague Philip Hammond as finance minister, who said he would meet central bank governor Mark Carney later in the day.

But she sprung a surprise by appointing Johnson - the former mayor of London who had appeared consigned to the political wilderness after backing out of the Conservative leadership contest - as her foreign minister.

The bumbling Johnson is famous for using his sharp wit to savage others.

During the referendum campaign, he compared the EU's ambitions for closer integration to Hitler's ambitions to rule the continent. He also once described White House hopeful Hillary Clinton as a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital".

Europe's media reacted with incredulity to the appointment, with Germany's Die Welt describing him as "undiplomatic, unpredictable and disloyal".

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Johnson had "lied a lot" in the EU campaign but said he was not concerned about his unconventional manner, telling Europe 1 radio that is "his style".

Others noted that he will not be in charge of EU exit negotiations - and may still yet prove himself. "Yes, he's got some apologies to make, but as the UK's salesman, he'll do a stand-up job," said Simon Usherwood, senior politics lecturer at the University of Surrey.

Johnson said he was "humbled", adding: "We have a massive opportunity in this country to make a great success of our new relationship with Europe and with the world."


May also appointed two arch eurosceptics in senior roles, confirming her commitment to implement Brexit - even though she had personally campaigned to stay in the EU.

David Davis has been put in charge of exit negotiations as new Brexit minister, while Liam Fox has responsibility for negotiating new trade agreements outside the bloc.

Nigel Farage, the former leader of the anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP), hailed the appointments as "inspired", adding: "I feel more optimistic now."

EU leaders, still reeling from Britain's decision to become the first country to leave the bloc in its 60-year history, pressed May for a quick divorce.

May's first calls after taking over late Wednesday were to Europe's top two powerbrokers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

"The prime minister emphasised her commitment to delivering the will of the British people to leave the European Union," her spokesman said after the round of calls, which also included Irish premier Enda Kenny.

She also "explained that we would need some time to prepare for these negotiations and spoke of her hope that these could be conducted in a constructive and positive spirit".

The vote "has created a new situation which the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to address soon," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.


After six years as interior minister under David Cameron, May signalled her intention to start with a clean slate by ruthlessly ejecting several of her former colleagues.

George Osborne, the former finance minister, was consigned to the back benches, while justice secretary Michael Gove - a leading Brexit supporter - was sacked.

However, she kept Michael Fallon on as defence minister, while former energy minister Amber Rudd was promoted to May's old interior minister job.

With Britain facing an uncertain future, Hammond - the former foreign minister - said Thursday that he had no plans for an emergency budget but said businesses needed to know what the future held.

"There has been a chilling effect" on markets since the referendum, he told BBC radio.

Europe's main stock markets rallied in early trading on Thursday, with Frankfurt back above 10,000 points for the first time since the referendum and the FTSE 100 index up 1.0 per cent compared with Wednesday's close.

"We have seen business investment decisions being paused because businesses now want to take stock, want to understand how we will take forward our renegotiation with the EU," Hammond said.

Speaking on the steps of her new Downing Street residence late Wednesday, May said Britain faced a time of "great national change" but said it would "rise to the challenge".

- AFP/ec

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