Boris Johnson, the tousle-haired leader of the Brexit campaign, became prime minister of the United Kingdom on Wednesday, promising – “no ifs or buts” – that Britain would leave the European Union in October.
“The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters, they are going to get it wrong, again,” Johnson said in his first remarks outside 10 Downing Street. “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts, because we’re going to restore trust in our democracy.”
Johnson declared, “I have every confidence that in 99 days’ time we will have cracked it” and be able exit the EU with “a new deal, a better deal.”
He implicitly blamed his predecessor, Theresa May, for failing in that challenge.
“After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record,” he said. “To recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world.”
Johnson made his name as a journalist known for exaggeration and then as a liberal Conservative London mayor. His supporters hope that as prime minister, he will keep his promises.
After Johnson’s speech, cabinet members began to shuttle into 10 Downing Street. Some of the meetings were brief. In all, 17 members of May’s government were either sacked or resigned or retired. The Daily Telegraph described reshuffle as a “massacre.”
Johnson cleared out “remainers” and in their place began to build a cabinet of true Brexit believers. In three top jobs he named Priti Patel as home secretary, Dominic Raab as foreign secretary and Sajid Javid as chancellor.
Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s main opponent in the Conservative Party leadership race, was fired as foreign secretary. Hunt said he was offered another job in the administration but decided to return to the backbenches.
Earlier in the day, Philip Hammond, who oversaw Britain’s budget, resigned as chancellor of the exchequer. Hammond had warned that he could not serve a prime minister who was prepared to take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
The transition of power in Britain’s parliamentary democracy is brutal – and lightning quick.
May curtsied to Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday afternoon and resigned. Minutes later, Johnson bowed and was asked to form a new government.
The dance began earlier in the day, when May appeared in the House of Commons for her last session of prime minister’s questions, a weekly exchange between the ruling government and the opposition, as tradition dictates, “two sword lengths apart.”
Lawmakers thanked May for her service. They reserved their harshest lines for Johnson, whom opposition rivals called “flagrant” and “reckless,” a usurper with no mandate, and someone who is prepared to “sell our country out to Donald Trump and his friends.”
May offered tepid support for her successor. She said she was “pleased” to hand over to Johnson, whom “I worked with when he was in my cabinet,” and who is committed to delivering Brexit. Johnson notably quit May’s cabinet over her Brexit approach.
When May herself came under attack in the House of Commons session, she gave as good as she got.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn laid into her – saying that under her tenure, child poverty was up, pensioner poverty was up, school class size was up, food bank use was up. May retorted that she was proud of her record. She then lowered her head, eyeballed Corbyn and poked him with her horns: “As a party leader who has accepted when her time was up, perhaps the time is now for him to do the same.”
Jo Swinson, the new leader of the ascendant Liberal Democrats party, asked May if she had any advice for “women across the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work.”
May smiled but did not take the bait – if that’s what it was – to reference Johnson. Instead, she offered: “Be true to yourself, persevere and keep going.”
Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female member of the House, honored May as Britain’s second female prime minister. But Harman added a sly reference to May’s rocky relationship with President Donald Trump: “Sometimes you just have to be a bit more careful when a man wants to hold your hand.”
Although May had a relatively short tenure for a British prime minister, she noted that she had answered more than 4,500 questions over the course of 140 hours in the House of Commons.
May now returns to the backbenches of Parliament as an ordinary and not very influential lawmaker. This is far different from the tradition in the United States, where a former president scoots offstage to write memoirs, deliver speeches and build a library. In May’s case, she will be back in the House of Commons after the summer recess, asking questions of Johnson.
May delivered brief farewell remarks at Downing Street and then was taken by motorcade down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where a thin scattering of tourists and locals were withering in the near-record temperatures of a European heat wave.
May stepped out of her armored Jaguar at the King’s Entrance in the inner quadrangle of the palace. She was greeted by the queen’s private secretary and led up the stairs for a private audience with the monarch.
May and the queen have had near-weekly meetings over the past three years. During their tea on Wednesday, May would have been free to speak her mind, and the queen would have been able to ask, essentially, how May was feeling and perhaps, what she thinks about what happens next.
After about 30 minutes, Buckingham Palace emailed a statement saying May had “tendered her resignation” and that Queen Elizabeth II “was graciously pleased to accept.”
Immediately after May’s car left, one carrying Johnson arrived for a ceremony known as “kissing hands.”
The palace released a photo of Johnson in the queen’s private audience room bowing to the monarch and shaking her right hand after she asked him to form a new government.
Johnson becomes the queen’s 14th prime minister. Over the course of her long reign, Elizabeth II has seen them come and go: Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and now Johnson.
Much attention was focused on Johnson’s remarks outside his new official residence. The first speech a prime minister delivers is heavily scrutinized and often long remembered.
For her first speech, May talked of tackling “burning injustices” in society and leading a government that worked for everyone, not the “privileged few.” Those promises for a Tory-led “social justice” program were often thrown back in her face, when May mostly failed to address those issues. She was consumed with Brexit. The same could happen to her successor.
Johnson, for his part, stressed that Britain can do anything.
He spoke about launching new satellites, building fantastic new railroads and providing faster broadband. He promised to hire 20,000 new police officers, provide social care for the elderly and slash waiting times to see doctors at the National Health Service.
He hailed “the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country.”
Johnson said he would seek a great Brexit deal – but that if the Europeans denied him this, he would take Britain out of the trade, travel and security union with no deal – and keep the $50 billion May promised the EU as part of her dashed withdrawal agreement.
Johnson handily won the leadership contest on Tuesday. The former foreign secretary Johnson captured 92,153 votes to Hunt’s 46,656 – a decisive victory.
But the vote involved only dues-paying members of the Conservative Party. A mere 139,000 people cast ballots in a country of 66 million. A lot of Britons feel left out at a pivotal moment. On social media, #NotMyPM was one of the many Johnson-related hashtags trending. A YouGov survey found that 58% of Brits have a negative opinion of Johnson – a wicked-high number for a first day on the job.
The 55-year-old Johnson will take up residence at Downing Street. His 31-year-old girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications official and a top Tory spinner, may move in over the weekend, according to British news reports. She appeared in a red and pink frock for Johnson’s remarks on Wednesday. Expect a lot of tabloid interest in this unprecedented arrangement.
Johnson will face an overflowing inbox of items that need urgent attention, including a showdown in the Persian Gulf with a belligerent Iran. The two countries have been in a tense standoff since Britain impounded an Iranian tanker suspected of sending oil to Syria, and Iran retaliated by seizing a British-flagged oil tanker last week.
Politics watchers are keen to see whether Johnson continues Britain’s effort to salvage the 2015 deal designed to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or whether he bends to U.S. pressure to impose sanctions on Iran.
But Johnson’s main challenge will be getting Britain out of the European Union.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam