Theresa May was heading to Scotland on Friday in her first visit as Britain’s new prime minister, stressing her bid to maintain UK unity after the Brexit vote.
May was due in Edinburgh Friday afternoon for talks with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has threatened another referendum on Scottish independence following Britain’s seismic vote to leave the European Union.
May took office on Wednesday after David Cameron stepped down as premier in the wake of the June 23 referendum.
On Thursday, she completed a radical cabinet reshuffle, culling several of Cameron’s ministers after stunning world capitals by appointing the often undiplomatic Brexit spearhead Boris Johnson as foreign minister.
The referendum result sent shockwaves around the world and sparked fears of an economic downturn, with Britain potentially facing exclusion from Europe’s single market — a key concern for Sturgeon.
Scottish voters overwhelmingly backed staying in the EU and nationalist leader Sturgeon sees this as possible grounds for another independence referendum.
“Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit for Scotland because Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit”, she reiterated as May took office.
Scots voted in September 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, which has endured for three centuries.
In heading swiftly to Edinburgh, May intends to emphasise her strong support for the union and for keeping Sturgeon’s devolved administration involved in the Brexit negotiations, a Downing Street spokesman said.
– May’s UK unity concern –
“I believe with all my heart in the United Kingdom,” May said in a statement.
“This visit to Scotland is my first as prime minister and I’m coming here to show my commitment to preserving this special union.”
In the June 23 referendum, 52 percent of voters backed leaving the EU but in Scotland, 62 percent opted to remain.
“We’ve got perhaps different views on what should happen now in terms of the Brexit vote,” said Sturgeon, who heads the left-wing secessionist Scottish National Party.
“My job is to seek to protect Scotland’s interests,” she told STV television.
– ‘March of the meritocrats’ –
After six years as Cameron’s interior minister, May was viewed as a safe pair of hands to replace him, but began with a deep cull of some of her former cabinet colleagues.
She sacked long-serving finance minister George Osborne and Brexit-campaigning justice minister Michael Gove — but gave Johnson the diplomatic brief.
In a major break with the past, graduates of Eton and other elite private schools who made up half of Cameron’s cabinet were forced to take a back seat.
Over two-thirds of the new cabinet attended state schools, in line with May’s promise on taking office to “build a better Britain…. that works for everyone — not just the privileged few.”
“May’s radical reshuffle stuns the old guard”, said The Guardian’s front page.
“March of the meritocrats,” was the headline on the cover of the Daily Mail tabloid.
US President Barack Obama called May to congratulate her on Thursday.
But controversy over Johnson’s appointment overshadowed the first full day of her tenure, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault accusing the ex-mayor of having “lied a lot” during the referendum campaign.
Attending the French ambassador’s Bastille Day party in London — before news of the terror attack in Nice emerged — Johnson stressed his love for Europe, in a speech that elicited a mix of cheers and boos.
– Keeping economy on track –
European leaders have pressed May to move quickly in implementing Brexit, amid fears of the damage the continued uncertainty could do to the EU and the world economy.
The Bank of England on Thursday held off on an anticipated cut in interest rates, keeping them unchanged at 0.50 percent, but signalled a possible cut next month.
New finance minister Philip Hammond warned business investment decisions were being put on hold and said he would work closely with central bank governor Mark Carney “to keep the economy on track.”
Meanwhile, the funeral of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox was to take place in her northern Yorkshire constituency later Friday.
Cox was shot and stabbed during the referendum campaign, which was suspended as a mark of respect for the “Remain” supporter.