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Theresa May's first job as UK leader is naming Brexit Tsar
[LONDON] When Theresa May takes office on Wednesday, her most-watched act as UK prime minister will be naming a Brexit Tsar.
Extricating the UK from the European Union will require finesse and force and whoever gets the job will need to be unswervingly loyal to the new leader and also have been a backer of the "Leave" campaign.
The formation of a new Brexit department with a secretary of state at its helm will be one of Ms May's first announcements, her office said late Tuesday.
"It will require somebody that has an ability to hold lots of information, who can be on point, somebody who's got a quick mind, an iron will, a certain charm when they're negotiating," Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told reporters in Westminster.
"And somebody who enjoys the full, utter and complete trust of the next prime minister." Finding the right person to manage Britain's difficult divorce from the 28-nation bloc while calming volatile markets and a still-stunned electorate is 59-year-old Ms May's most important task. The decision to call the EU referendum cost her predecessor, David Cameron, his job.
Ms May had promised that whoever she picks will have been a bona fide Brexit supporter so that rules out candidates such as Business Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. One of the hardest parts of the job will be selling whatever deal is reached to those within the Conservative Party who, unlike Ms May, campaigned for the UK to leave.
Brexiteers had told voters they would be able to stop the free movement of EU citizens into Britain while also keeping access to the EU's single market, an incompatible proposition that Ms May also said is her priority. Having a Brexit backer in charge of talks will help Ms May deflect blame for failing to deliver on those two fronts.
Fellow EU leaders have said they want talks to begin quickly, and for the UK to set out its demands. Ms May on the other hand is in no hurry, and has said what she wants: market access without immigration. Slowing things down without upsetting negotiating partners will be the Brexit secretary's first challenge.
Before she can get to work, Ms May has to wait for David Cameron to formally end his six-year term. He will face questions in the House of Commons for the last time as premier at noon before traveling to Buckingham Palace during the afternoon to inform Queen Elizabeth II of his resignation. The Queen will then ask Ms May to form a government.
That is when Ms May will start to announce a handful of senior posts, from Wednesday evening through to the rest on Thursday. More junior jobs can wait until Friday. Ms May will seek to strike a balance between pro and anti-EU personnel and is expected to put women in key roles.
Energy Secretary Amber Rudd and International Development Secretary Justine Greening were tipped for senior jobs in Wednesday's newspapers, including the Times, Guardian and Daily Mail. Employment minister Priti Patel, who was a leading advocate for the Brexit campaign, may also be promoted, the Mail said.
"It was Theresa that set up the campaign to elect more female MPs to parliament - and she has always believed that there should be more women in prominent government positions," her office said in an e-mail late Tuesday.
Among those considered are high-profile Brexiteers, though they all come with baggage. Andrea Leadsom, the junior minister who dropped out of the Tory leadership race, has the Euroskeptic credentials but might not enjoy Ms May's confidence after a detail-light campaign against her that collapsed within a week of its launch.
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson was too disorganised to mount his own leadership bid, suggesting he would struggle with complex international diplomacy. Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who torpedoed Mr Johnson's ambitions and clashed with Ms May when she was at the Home Office, might be deemed too Machiavellian to be trusted.
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and former home affairs spokesman David Davis might make the cut as prominent supporters who can please the Conservative Party's rank-and-file. But the Brexit backer who has Ms May's full confidence is her campaign manager, Chris Grayling.
In the meantime, the search is on for a building to house all the new employees, Ms May's office said. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said recruitment is underway to staff it.
"The government is creating a new EU unit which will bring together the brightest and the best from Whitehall and the private sector, including lawyers, financial experts and trade experts," Mr Hammond told Parliament.
"In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, facing the opportunities which we do now, recruitment of trade specialists whatever that costs us is likely to be an investment very well worth making."
Ms May knows that as the negotiations move forward every twist and turn will be picked apart by all sides. The UK Independence Party, for one, will be waiting to pounce on voters who feel they are being sold short.
"There is a real danger for the government going forward that no matter what it is that they negotiate, there could be some form of betrayal narrative," Ms Davidson said.