Theresa May promised to fight “burning injustice” in British society and create a union “between all of our citizens” as she sought to project a one-nation brand of Conservatism when she entered Downing Street for the first time as prime minister on Wednesday.
The radical change of direction at the heart of government was underlined by the sacking of George Osborne as chancellor, replacing David Cameron’s key lieutenant with former foreign secretary Philip Hammond.
Speaking after visiting the Queen in Buckingham Palace, May made a direct pitch for the political centre ground, promising to speak for the “ordinary working-class family” struggling to make ends meet. But while her language was centrist and conciliatory, May’s first cabinet appointments suggested a shift to the right, with Boris Johnson appointed as foreign secretary and veteran right-wingers David Davis and Liam Fox back in government as secretary for Brexit and international trade respectively.
Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, will succeed May as home secretary – a rapid rise for a woman who has only been in parliament since 2010, and joined the cabinet last May. Rudd cemented her reputation as a strong political performer during the televised referendum debates, in which she made a series of barbed comments about Johnson, who will now sit alongside her in the May cabinet.
The new prime minister said: “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.
“When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we’ll listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we’ll prioritise not the wealthy but you.”
May’s first six cabinet appointments also demonstrated an attempt to reunite a Conservative party fractured by the EU referendum debate and tackle the tough task of negotiating Britain’s way out of the European Union.
Fox, the former defence secretary who resigned in disgrace in 2011, will return to government in the newly created post of international trade minister – a crucial role when Britain must renegotiate its trading relationships with the rest of the world in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Davis, another leading Vote Leave campaigner, will be the new secretary of state for exiting the European Union – likely to be known as Brexit secretary. Michael Fallon will stay at defence.
Speaking after his appointment as the new foreign secretary, Johnson told BBC News: “Obviously very, very humbled, very, very proud to be offered this chance. Clearly now we have a massive opportunity in this country to make a great success of our relationship with Europe and with the world and I’m very excited to be asked to play a part in that.”
Johnson’s job as foreign secretary is a more senior role than many in Westminster had expected after his last-minute decision not to stand as Tory leader. But with Davis negotiating the details of Brexit, and Fox in charge of international trade, the former mayor of London is likely to have a less sweeping role than his predecessors as foreign secretary.
May has repeatedly said since standing for her party’s leadership that “Brexit means Brexit”, but there are few clues as to how a new relationship with the other 27 EU member states will look.
On Wednesday night, May asked European leaders for time to prepare for the negotiations to take Britain out of the EU but restated her commitment that “Brexit means Brexit”.
In a series of congratulatory phone calls after taking over as prime minister, May spoke to German chancellor, Angela Merkel, French president, Francois Hollande, and Irish taoiseach, Enda Kenny.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “On all the phone calls, the prime minister emphasised her commitment to delivering the will of the British people to leave the European Union.
“The prime minister 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.”
Speaking from Kyrgyzstan, Merkel invited May to Germany and indicated they would meet for talks at the G20 summit in September. The spokeswoman added: “They agreed that they wanted to establish a constructive relationship, recognising the importance of close cooperation between the UK and Germany.”
May spoke to Hollande about the importance of the UK-France relationship, particularly with regards to security, defence and joint work on border controls in Calais.
The spokeswoman added: “The prime minister offered her best wishes to the president and the people of France for Bastille Day tomorrow and the president invited the prime minister to visit Paris.”
Kenny wished May luck and welcomed her commitment to helping the less well-off. “They both agreed that the strong collaboration between our countries should continue and the taoiseach offered to visit London soon for talks on how they could best work together to achieve this,” the spokeswoman added.
Hammond, who immediately drove to the Treasury to meet civil servants and take up his new role, becomes chancellor at a difficult moment, with economic growth widely thought to be jeopardised by the uncertainty created in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.
Osborne, who was central to Cameron’s modernising project, tweeted:
Cameron, who announced he would step down after his campaign to remain in the EU lost last month’s referendum, had earlier congratulated May as he made an emotional speech before leaving No 10 for the last time as PM with his wife and children. He said being prime minister had been “the greatest honour of my life” and highlighted gay marriage and boosting overseas aid as key achievements of his six years in power.
“It’s not been an easy journey, and of course we’ve not got every decision right,” he said, alongside his wife, Samantha, and children, Nancy, Elwen and Florence.
Cameron had received a noisy standing ovation from his backbenchers as he left the chamber of the House of Commons on Wednesday lunchtime after his last appearance at prime minister’s questions.
Many of his MPs had been shocked at the speed with which he has been swept from power since the public unexpectedly voted to leave the EU in the 23 June referendum. While Cameron had repeatedly pledged to stay on to handle the exit talks if Britain chose to leave, few in Westminster were surprised that he decided to hand the job to a successor.
The leadership race, expected to take place over months, was reduced to weeks as May’s opponents fell away, hastening Cameron’s departure from Downing Street. May was crowned the new Tory leader when her final opponent, the pro-Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom, dropped out this week.
May served Cameron as home secretary throughout his six years in government, but she will now have to try to deliver on the expectations created during the referendum campaign that leaving the EU will allow politicians to “take back control” of immigration.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, ridiculed May’s claims to be speaking for the hard-pressed in society, saying: “We’ve today had warm words from our new prime minister about the need to stand up for more than a ‘privileged few’. The sentiments are good ones but, just like her predecessor, the rhetoric is much better than the reality. The truth is, Theresa May has been at the heart of the Tory government for the last six years and is tied to its record. It’s a record of failing to stand up for working people and backing policies that are putting vital public services like the NHS at risk.”
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, welcomed May as prime minister but warned: “She will need to establish clear leadership quickly and effectively. Her approach to civil liberties, as demonstrated in her stewardship of the investigatory powers bill, is deeply worrying, and does not offer any reassurance to our party.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010