Theresa May at the British helm

Sunday 17/07/2016
Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May with her husband Philip May outside 10 Downing Street in central London, on July 13th.

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.”