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Theresa May Becomes New British Prime Minister Amid Brexit Fallout


A new photo today says it all - Theresa May, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, curtseying deeply before the Queen at Buckingham Palace. With that ceremonial gesture, a new chapter began in British politics.


THERESA MAY: We believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us.

SHAPIRO: Theresa May is only the second female prime minister in the country's history, and she takes power at a challenging time. NPR's Frank Langfitt is following the day's events from London. Welcome, Frank.


SHAPIRO: She spoke to the country from her new home, number 10 Downing Street. We just heard a little bit of what Theresa May had to say. What else was in her remarks?

LANGFITT: The big message that she was sending was kind of an economic populist one and one about unifying the nation. He here's how she put it.


MAY: We are living through an important moment in our country's history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change. And I know because we're Great Britain that we will rise to the challenge. We will forge a bold, new, positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us.

SHAPIRO: Frank, she's clearly trying to unify the country there. Is there a specific audience, you think, for those remarks?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. She's speaking to many people who voted to leave the European Union. These are people in what's called Middle England as you would remember when you were here as a correspondent - old, industrial cities who were voting for change.

So I met a lot of these kind of people traveling cross the U.K. in the last week. They're people who feel they can't get ahead economically, feel left behind, ignored by the center of power in London. And she's really reaching out to the disaffected, a lot of the people who powered the Brexit vote. If you want to put in U.S. political terms, we're really talking about the kind of voters who fueled the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: Now, Theresa May not only has to unify the country. She also has to deal with the actual fallout from the Brexit vote, getting Great Britain out of the European Union, creating some kind of an agreement with the other European countries. How does she begin to do all of this?

LANGFITT: It's going to be really difficult, and we don't - we really don't know yet what her plan is. You know, she has this really big dilemma, Ari. She's going to walk away from a 28-nation trading bloc. That risks really damaging the U.K. economy. But if she tries to stay in some way in the single market, the EU will insist, hey, we need the free flow of workers into the United Kingdom. Well, that's the exact thing that a lot of people voted against. They were very upset with immigration. So she has this very difficult dilemma, and we haven't heard, you know, how she's going to navigate this yet.

SHAPIRO: And remind us of what her reputation is as a politician. What do people think of her on the whole?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. She was home secretary for six years, which is the longest time that anyone had done that job in half a century. It's a difficult job. You're handing security, police, immigration, often get into some public battles. And so it shows - I think a lot of people think of her very much as a survivor. And her image is kind of tough and highly competent. And after the political shooting gallery that we've seen in this country in the past three weeks, competence sounds pretty attractive.

SHAPIRO: Theresa May also announced her cabinet today, and it included somebody whose name will be familiar to many American listeners.

LANGFITT: Yeah, Boris Johnson - he is the new foreign secretary. And you would remember, as everybody who's listening would probably remember, he's the former London mayor who fought very hard for Brexit even though many people didn't believe that he actually thought leaving the European Union was a good idea. People thought it was a political calculation. After they won, he had no plan. He was really disgraced, I think. This was not very long ago.

Now he has a new job. And it's very interesting because Theresa May - when she was announcing her bid to be prime minister, she actually made fun of Boris Johnson, but that's politics right now in this country. Not only does Theresa May feel she has to unify the country. She also has to unify the Conservative Party. And so that's probably a big reason why he got that job.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking with us from London - thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.