LONDON, July 15th, 2016 : British Prime Minister Theresa May completed a major overhaul of the government Thursday, promoting leading Brexit campaigners and stunning observers by picking gaffe-prone Boris Johnson as her top diplomat.
After six years as interior minister under David Cameron, May took office on Wednesday signalling her intention to start with a clean slate — before ruthlessly ejecting some of her former colleagues.
Finance minister George Osborne was replaced by foreign minister Philip Hammond, while two eurosceptics were brought in to take control of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
EU leaders have lined up to congratulate May, whose appointment brings some stability three tumultuous weeks after the June 23 referendum, but urged her to move quickly in implementing the vote to leave.
The result has sparked turmoil on financial markets and sent shockwaves throughout British and European politics, including forcing Cameron to step down.
At its first meeting since the referendum, the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee decided to keep interest rates unchanged at 0.50 percent, although it signalled a possible cut in August.
The British pound briefly jumped above $1.34, while London’s FTSE 100 index slid, reflecting some disappointment at the bank’s decision to hold off on an anticipated rate cut.
In a bid to reassure markets, May appointed a safe pair of hands as finance minister. Hammond was due to meet Bank of England governor Mark Carney Thursday, as well as visiting US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
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.
He is well-known for using his sharp wit and his newspaper columns to savage others, once describing White House hopeful Hillary Clinton as a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.
During the referendum campaign, he compared the EU’s ambitions for closer integration to Hitler’s plans to rule the continent.
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 was “his style”.
Europe’s media reacted with incredulity to the appointment, with Germany’s Die Welt describing him as “undiplomatic, unpredictable and disloyal”.
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 himself 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 had personally campaigned to stay in the EU but confirmed that “Brexit means Brexit” by appointing two arch eurosceptics to her cabinet.
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.
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.
Hollande “reiterated his wish for the negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union to be undertaken as soon as possible”, his office said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the vote “has created a new situation which the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to address soon”.
May’s spokesman said she had emphasised in her calls, which also included Irish premier Enda Kenny, that she would implement the referendum decision.
But she “explained that we would need some time to prepare for these negotiations”.
May had presented herself as the most stable and unifying candidate to succeed Cameron, but she marked a break with his leadership by removing some of his key ministers.
Justice secretary Michael Gove, a leading Brexit supporter and her rival in the Tory leadership race, was sent packing along with Osborne, and the education and culture ministers.
However she kept defence minister Michael Fallon and health minister Jeremy Hunt in their posts.
Osborne had threatened an emergency budget in the event of Brexit, but Hammond ruled this out Thursday, although he said businesses needed to know what the future held.
“There has been a chilling effect” on markets since the referendum, he told BBC radio.
“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,” he said.