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Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside 10 Downing Street in central London on July 13, 2016 on the day she takes office following the formal resignation of David Cameron.JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP / Getty Images

Theresa May made sweeping changes within hours of being sworn in as British Prime Minister, firing the country's long-serving finance minister, appointing ardent Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and creating the post of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

It was a clear sign that Ms. May has broken from David Cameron's legacy, embraced Britain's decision to pull out of the European Union and plans to play hard ball in the upcoming negotiations with the EU on a new relationship.

She got to work right after a short meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday. In brief remarks outside 10 Downing St., vacated hours earlier by Mr. Cameron, Ms. May spoke of healing the deep divisions in the country caused by last month's shock referendum vote.

"As we leave the European Union, 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," she said.

Ever since the referendum on June 23, there have been questions about whether Ms. May was committed to Brexit. She had supported keeping the country in the EU during the campaign, but played a minor role in it, unlike Mr. Cameron who led the Remain side and stepped down after the vote.

But since winning the Conservative leadership on Monday, Ms. May made it clear that "Brexit means Brexit, and we're going to make a success of it."

She put her vision into practice, appointing Mr. Johnson and two other prominent Brexit supporters to senior cabinet post: David Davis as the new Brexit minister and Liam Fox as the country's first Secretary of State for International Trade. And she replaced Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a close confidante of Mr. Cameron who campaigned for the Remain side and came under fierce criticism for issuing a number of dire warnings about the economic turmoil Brexit would cause.

Mr. Johnson led the Vote Leave campaign and he had been seen as a potential front-runner to replace Mr. Cameron at the head of the Conservative Party. But Mr. Johnson's leadership bid floundered and he backed Ms. May's rival in the race, Andrea Leadsom, who had also been active in the Vote Leave campaign. Ms. Leadsom pulled out unexpectedly this week amid controversy, clearing the way for a new leader to take power much earlier than had originally been anticipated.

Ms. May had not been expected to give Mr. Johnson a senior cabinet post. The fact that she did signals that she wants to keep the Brexit faction in the Conservative Party content.

However, Mr. Johnson, a former mayor of London, has no cabinet experience and has been an MP since the election last year after serving from 2001 to 2008. And he has a history of making gaffes including during the referendum campaign when he made some derogatory comments about U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Britain to support Mr. Cameron's call for the country to remain in the EU.

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson took a diplomatic tone. "Clearly, now we have a massive opportunity in this country to make a great success of our new relationship with Europe and with the world, and I'm very excited to be asked to play a part in that," he said. "The United States will be at the front of the queue," he added in a crack at Mr. Obama's comment during the referendum that Britain would be at the "back of the queue" when it came to a trade deal if it voted for Brexit.

Mr. Davis has taken an even harder line on the EU. He has been a virulent critic, saying it has been beset by "a litany of failures" and suggesting Britain should have tariff-free access to the EU market without agreeing to the free movement of people, something EU leaders have vigorously opposed.

"Once the European nations realize that we are not going to budge on control of our borders, they will want to talk, in their own interest," he wrote recently. "There may be some complexities about rules of origin and narrowly based regulatory compliance for exports into the EU, but that is all manageable."

Mr. Fox, too, has been at the forefront of the Brexit debate for years, and he backed Ms. May's leadership bid. Britain has never had a trade minister because all of its trade arrangements were done through the EU. Mr. Fox will have to begin negotiating trade deals with other countries, including EU members, even though the country has virtually no experienced trade negotiators.

Ms. May did hand several key posts to her fellow Remain campaigners, including Amber Rudd who became Home Secretary, the post Ms. May held for six years. That position involves overseeing policing, counterterrorism and immigration. Michael Fallon, who also supported Remain, kept his position as Defence Secretary.

Mr. Osborne had served as the country's finance minister throughout Mr. Cameron's six years as Prime Minister. His future had been in question since the referendum and he was not expected to have a major role in Ms. May's cabinet.

He resigned on Wednesday at the request of Ms. May who replaced him with Philip Hammond, the outgoing Foreign Secretary. Mr. Hammond backed the Remain side during the referendum campaign, but he kept a much lower profile.

The appointment will impact Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. Mr. Osborne appointed Mr. Carney and agreed to the Canadian's request for a five-year term instead of eight. The two had a close working relationship and Mr. Carney has faced criticism for issuing similar warnings during the referendum campaign. Many on the Vote Leave side said Mr. Carney was acting on behalf of Mr. Osborne, but the governor has insisted he was fulfilling his mandate to raise concerns about risks to the economy. This week a parliamentary committee demanded to see the minutes of private meetings between Mr. Carney and Mr. Osborne during the referendum campaign.

Ms. May got some kind words from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She has suggested Scotland might hold another referendum on independence because it voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.

On Tuesday, Ms. Sturgeon softened her tone somewhat. The Brexit vote "provides a challenge but also provides an opportunity," she told a group of foreign journalists. "With imagination and political will, I believe it's possible to find a way of respecting those different mandates that exit across the United Kingdom."

And she hoped to work closely with Ms. May on Brexit, suggesting that women bring a different approach to leadership and problem solving.

"Do I believe that women have the ability to save the world?" she asked with a smile. "Yes I do."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Boris Johnson only served as an MP since the election last year. In fact, he was also an MP from 2001 to 2008. This version has been corrected.