Theresa May pleads for national and party unity in maiden speech as PM

New Prime Minister ends day with phone calls to European leaders - stressing 'Brexit means Brexit' - after her early Cabinet appointments include Boris Johnson in shock role of Foreign Secretary

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 13 July 2016 23:44 BST
Theresa May's first speech as PM

Theresa May moved to re-unite the nation and the Conservative Party after the divisive EU referendum as she vowed to govern for struggling working class families rather than a “privileged few” on becoming Britain’s second woman prime minister.

Ms May, who backed Remain in the referendum, handed top Cabinet posts to Leave campaigners. She sprung a major surprise by making Boris Johnson her Foreign Secretary – an astonishing comeback by the man who was the front-runner to succeed David Cameron before being pushed out of the Tory leadership race by his fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove. It is the former Mayor of London’s first Cabinet post, and puts him back on course to eventually become prime minister if he makes a success of it.

David Davis, a Eurosceptic former Europe Minister, landed the key job of “Brexit minister” in charge of negotiating the UK’s exit with the 27 remaining EU countries. Another prominent Leave campaigner, Liam Fox, also won a recall to the Government as an International Trade Secretary.

The reshuffle was designed to reassure Tory MPs that the new Prime Minister would honour her pledge that “Brexit means Brexit.” Some Eurosceptics fear that she might try to avoid the “clean break” with Europe they demand.

But before her first day in Downing Street was over, Ms May was on the phone to European leaders, pledging to establish a "constructive relationship" while reconfirming her commitment to follow through the will of the people as laid out in the referendum.

Philip Hammond moved from the Foreign Office to the Treasury. The man he succeeded as Chancellor, George Osborne, was sacked from the Cabinet – a remarkable fall for a man often seen as Mr Cameron’s most likely successor. Just over a year after they won a general election, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are now both in the political wilderness.

Amber Rudd, a prominent Remain campaigner, won a big promotion to Ms May’s previous job as Home Secretary after only 15 months in the Cabinet as Energy Secretary. Michael Fallon kept his job as Defence Secretary.

Speaking outside Downing Street earlier, Ms May promised to lead a One Nation government, boost social mobility and tackle “burning injustice” as she described her mission as “to make Britain a country that works for everyone”.

But the new Prime Minister skated over the daunting challenge that will dominate her first two years in power – clearing up the mess she inherits from Mr Cameron after the Brexit vote and negotiating the EU exit terms. Also at the top of her in-tray will be SNP demands to keep Scotland in the EU after it voted for Remain. Ms May will meet Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, shortly to discuss SNP calls for a second independence referendum.

Ms May said: “My party is the Conservative and Unionist Party and that word unionist is very important to me. It means we believe in the Union, the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - but it means something else that is just as important. It means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens - every one of us - whoever we are and wherever we're from.

"That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you're born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you're black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white. If you're a white working class boy you're less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you're at a state school you're less likely to reach the top professions than if you're educated privately. If you're a woman you will earn less than a man.”

Making clear she had got the message from the EU referendum, Ms May said: “If you're from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.” She promised these families: “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 will think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we will prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity we won't entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Mr Cameron formally tendered his resignation to the Queen after winning a standing ovation in the Commons at his swansong at Prime Minister’s Questions. He urged his successor to keep Britain "as close to the European Union as we can.”

Looking ahead to her talks with Ms May, Ms Sturgeon said a second Scottish referendum was on the table - and relegated any option short of full EU membership to "second, third or fourth best". She added: “We will want to get a very firm assurance from Theresa May that Scotland and the Scottish Government will be centrally involved in the process that will now take shape.

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