Theresa May to step down, Boris Johnson to become U.K. prime minister, in elaborate transition of power

The Washington Post

The British government is in transition on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Theresa May steps down and Boris Johnson takes her place. Here’s how the day will unfold:

●May hosted her last session of Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament and will soon deliver farewell remarks at 10 Downing Street.

●May will then submit her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

●Johnson will formally become prime minister following his own audience with the queen.

●Johnson will deliver his first speech at Downing Street and begin to form his cabinet.

The transition of power in Britain’s parliamentary democracy is brutal —and lightning quick. The United Kingdom is not without a premier for more than an hour. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May will curtsy to the Queen Wednesday afternoon and resign. Boris Johnson will bow and be asked to form a new government.

When Johnson walks through the black enameled door of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon, he will fulfill what his biographers describe as his relentless “blond ambition” to follow his hero, Winston Churchill, into Britain’s top job.

He will immediately face the buzz saw of Brexit. And although his supporters hope the charismatic Johnson will rally a divided Parliament and a divided country in a way that Theresa May failed to do, he comes into office as a controversial leader, not especially well-liked by most Brits.

Johnson — a bombastic, Latin-quoting Oxford classicist with a mop of intentionally mussed yellow hair — made his name as an over-the-top journalist and a colorful London mayor. He then galvanized the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, which won him many fans and many enemies. 

On Wednesday, the transition began 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 term and her 33 years in public service. The 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, 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 handling of Brexit.

When May herself came under attack, 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 ascendent 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. But Harman added a sly reference to May’s rocky relationship with President 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.

After she steps down as leader, May will return to the back benches of Parliament as an ordinary and not very influential lawmaker. This is far different than 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 towards compromise? Or tilt towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit? The line-up 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!”

Next on the schedule: May will deliver farewell remarks at Downing Street and then travel to Buckingham Palace — probably under the watchful eye of hovering media helicopters — where she will tender her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II and recommend Johnson as the person who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. 

After May’s car leaves the palace, one carrying Johnson will arrive for a ceremony known as “kissing hands.”

In the movie “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren, the actor playing Tony Blair kissed the hand of the monarch, but in reality, there’s more likely to be shaking hands. Theresa May shook hands and curtseyed — deeply — during her meeting with the queen when she became prime minister.

Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband, Philip, stand outside 10 Downing Street on July 13, 2016. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Johnson will be 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 today will focus on his remarks after he leaves the palace. 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.

Matt Hancock, a Conservative politician who has been helping with Johnson’s campaign, told the BBC he expected Johnson’s speech to include “a surprising amount of detail, especially on the domestic agenda.” He said that, at the same time as delivering Brexit, Johnson wanted to focus on domestic issues and pointed out that on the campaign trail Johnson spoke about education, social care and policing.

Once prime minister, Johnson is expected to start naming his new team and new cabinet. Johnson has said he wants a cabinet rich with pro-Brexit voices — with each chair filled by someone who is okay 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. 

New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Boris Johnsonleaves his campaign office in central London on Tuesday. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

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. 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. Expect a lot of tabloid interest in this unprecedented arrangement.

When Johnson clocks in, he will face an overflowing in-tray 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.

May’s failure to deliver Brexit on time was the reason her Tory lawmakers ousted her.

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