LONDON — Boris Johnson, an ardent supporter of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, took over as prime minister from Theresa May on Wednesday, projecting an optimistic view of the country’s future despite the looming specter of Brexit.
Mr. Johnson, a former foreign secretary and two-term mayor of London, is a polarizing figure, known for over-the-top displays and a charismatic bluster that has connected with many voters but alienated others.
But in his first address in front of 10 Downing Street, his new residence, shortly after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and being invited to form a new government, he offered a rebuttal to those who doubt his ability to lead.
“After three years of unfounded self-doubt, it is time to change the record,” he said in a speech that repeatedly made reference to Brexit, an issue that divided the country and brought down the last two prime ministers. “No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck, nerve and ambition of this country. They will not succeed today.”
Mr. Johnson promised to start work immediately on a series of policies including putting more police officers on the streets, revitalizing social care and strengthening the National Health Service. He was also preparing to appoint a new cabinet, a day after his easy victory in a Conservative Party leadership vote was confirmed.
“We in the government will work flat out to give this country the leadership it deserves, and that work begins now,” he said, reiterating his view that Britain must leave the European Union by Oct. 31 one way or another. “No ifs or buts.”
Protesters, apparently from Greenpeace, tried to block Mr. Johnson’s car as he was being driven to Buckingham Palace. Several tried to form a human chain that was quickly dispersed, and two others unfurled a banner that said “Climate Emergency.”
A little more than an hour earlier, Mrs. May stood outside the same iconic doorway at 10 Downing Street offering her final remarks as prime minister before handing her formal resignation to the queen.
During her short address, she congratulated Mr. Johnson and then added, “Of course much remains to be done, the immediate priority begin to complete our exit from the E.U.,” highlighting the very issues she had tried and repeatedly failed to resolve.
Earlier in the day, Mrs. May traveled to Parliament for a final round of questions from legislators. After some pleasantries, she launched into a raucous back and forth with the opposition in which she was questioned about Mr. Johnson’s fitness as a leader.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, applauded her service before adding that he hoped Mrs. May, who will keep her seat in Parliament, would be involved in “helping me to oppose the reckless plans of her successor.”
Mr. Johnson was among the most high-profile backers of Brexit, and in his Wednesday speech, he had made clear that he would push for Britain to leave by the October deadline even if there were no deal in place. He also took aim at one of the major stumbling blocks for Mrs. May in successfully passing her deal for Britain to leave the bloc: the Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain a European Union member state.
“Never mind the backstop, the buck stops here,” Mr. Johnson said on Wednesday, but said he was convinced Britain could make a deal that didn’t include checks at the Irish border.
Mr. Johnson has previously described Britain’s departure from Europe as a matter of “do or die,” but opponents of a no-deal departure — who include a majority of Parliament and some members of his own party — have warned that it could have ruinous effects on the British economy, and lead to shortages of food and medicine.
Mr. Johnson’s leadership team will include Dominic Cummings, a director of the “Vote Leave” campaign for the 2016 referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, according to the BBC.
While his appointment as a senior adviser would be likely to be applauded by hard-line supporters of Brexit, his role in that campaign’s ruthlessly successful strategy has made him a controversial and sometimes mythologized figure.
[Read more on Boris Johnson’s chaotic personal life .]
A handful of Conservatives who served in the previous government have resigned already, signaling they had no intention of serving under Mr. Johnson’s leadership.
Alan Duncan, the second-ranking official in the foreign office, resigned on Monday, while Anne Milton, an education minister, announced her resignation on Tuesday shortly before Mr. Johnson’s victory in the party leadership race was announced. Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned on Thursday, having said earlier that he would quit before Mr. Johnson could fire him.
Other prominent figures, including David Gauke, the justice secretary, and Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, made clear that they would not serve in a government led by Mr. Johnson because of concerns about his willingness to leave the European Union without a deal.
A series of further cabinet ministers resigned or were fired Wednesday evening as Mr. Johnson began the process of appointing his team.
Mr. Johnson won 66 percent of the votes cast by registered party members, defeating Jeremy Hunt, his rival for the Conservative leadership and his successor as foreign secretary, by a comfortable margin.
Those dues-paying members, however, represent, just a tiny fraction of overall British voters, so the extent of his mandate is unclear. He will face deep challenges as he takes the helm, with Brexit looming large and tensions with Iran bubbling into a potential crisis. And his Conservative Party lacks an outright majority in Parliament.
Nigel Farage — the populist leader of the Brexit Party, which outperformed the Conservatives in European Parliament elections in May — has said he would be open to the idea of an electoral pact between his party and the Conservatives.
Mr. Johnson would have to call a general election to prevent Parliament from blocking a no-deal Brexit, Mr. Farage has argued, and would need such an alliance to avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote.
In an interview at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where he was attending a conference for conservative teenagers, Mr. Farage challenged Mr. Johnson to roll the dice.
“My contention is the only way Brexit gets done by the 31st of October is if we get a brave Boris and he calls a general election,” Mr. Farage said. “That’s the only way I think this can really happen. If he calls an election, he unavoidably has to deal with me in some way.”
He added: “If he really wants to do it, I’ll help him. I could be his best friend or his worst enemy.”
Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, when asked on Wednesday about his thoughts on Mr. Johnson, said he looked forward to hearing the new prime minister’s plans for Britain’s exit from the bloc.
“Is it an orderly Brexit? That is the choice, the preference of the E.U., and we worked for an orderly Brexit all along the last two years,” he said. “Is it a no-deal Brexit? The no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the E.U. but we are prepared.”
But Brexit will not be the only issue on the agenda for the new leader. Tensions in the Persian Gulf will also demand attention. Last week, Iran announced it had seized a British tanker there, raising the stakes in a simmering conflict with the West. Earlier this month, the British Navy seized an Iranian vessel near Gibraltar on suspicion of violating a European Union embargo on the sale of oil to Syria.
Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Washington.
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