Boris Johnson Becomes British Prime Minister

LONDON (The Washington Post) —
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street, in London, July 24, 2019. (Reuters/Hannah McKay)

Boris Johnson, the tussle-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 as prime minister 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 will 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 an over-the-top journalist and then as a colorful London mayor. His supporters hope that as prime minister, he will keep all his promises.

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. Their harshest lines were reserved 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 didn’t take the bait — if that’s what it was — to make any references to 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.

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 will return 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 back in the House of Commons after the summer recess, asking questions of Johnson.

Outside the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday, Fleet Street was in a tizzy over possible picks for Johnson’s team — including the “great offices of state” — the chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary; and what they could mean for Brexit and his style of governing. Johnson has just 99 days to find a Brexit solution. Otherwise, he has warned that Britain might accept the economic risk of leaving the bloc without a withdrawal agreement or transition period.

Will Johnson lean toward compromise? Or tilt toward a “no deal” Brexit? The lineup of his top team could also signal whether he intends to govern, as he suggested on the campaign trail, like he did as mayor of London, where he was known as a liberal Conservative.

Johnson awoke Wednesday to a pile of British newspapers on his doorstep announcing his victory — some celebratory, some not. The Metro tabloid went with “Don’t Panic!” as an all-caps headline. The Express front page read, “Hang Onto Your Hats. Here Comes Boris!”

Minutes before May drove to Buckingham Palace to resign, the outgoing prime minister stood for a last time at the lectern in front of 10 Downing Street.

In brief remarks, with her husband, Philip, standing by her side, May wished Johnson and his team good fortune.

“Their successes will be our successes,” May said.

May said she hopes young girls who have seen her in high office will believe “there are no limits to what they can achieve.”

In the background, Steve Bray, an anti-Brexit protestor who is fixture outside Westminster, shouted, “Stop Brexit!”

May looked up and said, “I think not.”

May was driven 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 heatwave.

May stepped out of her out armored Jaguar at the King’s Entrance in the inner quadrangle of the palace. She was greeted by the queens’ private secretary and led up the stairs for a private audience with the queen.

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 the monarch “was graciously pleased to accept.”

Immediately after May’s car left, one carrying Johnson arrived for a ceremony.

The palace released a photo of Johnson in the queen’s private audience room bowing to the monarch 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 as prime minister, 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 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 new deal” for Brexit — but that if the Europeans denied him this, than 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 has said he wants a cabinet rich with pro-Brexit voices — with each chair filled by someone who is OK with the incoming prime minister’s vow, that if he does not get the Brexit deal he wants from Europe, then Britain will crash out with no deal.

Johnson handily won the leadership contest on Tuesday. The former foreign secretary Johnson captured 92,153 votes to current foreign secretary Jeremy 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 percent 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. Johnson will face an overflowing in-box 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.

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