Theresa May at the British helm
London - Following the fallout from the Brexit vote, Britain bade farewell to David Cameron and welcomed his successor as prime minister, Theresa May.
Within 24 hours of her appointment on July 13th, May made a slew of cabinet appointments, including naming pro-Brexit Boris Johnson as Foreign Affairs secretary.
May had billed herself as the continuity candidate in the race for the Conservative Party leadership but was quick to make bold cabinet appointments with many wondering how Johnson’s appointment will affect Britain’s foreign policy towards the Middle East.
May, who served as Home Department secretary for six years, is expected to continue the approach towards the Middle East as pursued during the Cameron premiership. She voted in favour of military action in Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as in favour of the continued deployment of British troops in Afghanistan in 2010.
The appointment of Johnson as Foreign Affairs secretary — with predecessor Philip Hammond becoming chancellor of the Exchequer — raised questions of whether there will be a change in policy. Johnson’s appointment is being viewed as a boon to the pro-Brexit camp of the Conservative Party from May, who supported “Remain”, but it could have repercussions in the Middle East.
Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in December 2015, Johnson suggested that Britain should work with the Russians and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS), a switch that would mark a significant change to Britain’s foreign policy.
“At the moment, we are in danger of treating our engagement [in Syria] as if it were some complicated three-sided chess game in which we are trying to neutralise the Islamists while simultaneously preventing (Russian President Vladimir) Putin from getting too big for his boots. If we try to be too clever, we will end up achieving nothing,” Johnson said.
It is unclear whether Johnson will seek to change British foreign policy in Syria, which includes backing anti-Assad moderate Syrian rebels. Many analysts said Johnson’s focus will be on post- Brexit Europe.
“Given the scale of the challenges that May faces over negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, safeguarding the economy and unifying her party, a major shift in UK foreign policy towards Syria seems unlikely. Yet, her selection of Johnson will raise questions in the Middle East over her true position and her judgment,” said Tim Eaton, project manager for Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Syria and Its Neighbours Policy Initiative.
May, who was the longest-serving Home secretary in 60 years, is more known for her domestic policies although these are concerns for many British Muslims who criticised the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme and the draconian Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
Dr Shuja Shafi, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an organisation with more than 500 affiliated national, regional and local groups, mosques and schools, sought to strike a note of caution.
“Our new prime minister takes on onerous responsibilities at an extremely challenging time for all of us,” he said in a release. “We look forward to Mrs May delivering the leadership our country desperately needs. She must not only navigate tough negotiations with Europe after the Brexit vote, the prime minister must also deal with the fallout from the European referendum campaign where reports of hate incidents against Muslims and others have increased exponentially.
“We look forward to Mrs May not only introducing tough new measures to challenge this problem but also healing the divisions that have been revealed in the past few months.”
The statement continued: “Many Muslims are also crying out for a fresh new approach towards Muslim communities. There cannot be business-as-usual when it comes to Muslims who have principally been dealt with through the prism of security. We hope Mrs May’s government reaches out to the full spectrum of the Muslim community.”