Theresa May, Britain’s longest-serving Home Secretary for more than 50 years, is set to succeed David Cameron and become the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.
Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom cleared May’s path for the crown, when she pulled out of the leadership race on July 11, saying that the Home Secretary “is ideally placed to implement Brexit on the best possible terms for the British people.” Shortly after Leadsom’s press conference, the body that oversees the election of new Conservative leaders said that the leadership contest would not be reopened.
Writing her pledge in the London Times on June 30, May said her “proven leadership” credentials would help her make Britain a country “that works not for the privileged but for everyone.” “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it” said May as she launched her leadership campaign on Monday in Birmingham. “The country voted to leave the E.U., and as Prime Minister I will make sure we leave the E.U.”
May joined several other Tories in the leadership race sparked by Cameron’s resignation announcement on June 24; in a surprise move, Justice Minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove unveiled a leadership bid, alongside former Defense Minister Liam Fox and Leadsom. But it was May’s bid that gained steam as Tory MPs voted. After the final round of parliamentary voting last Thursday, May and Leadsom emerged as the two candidates to face a vote by the party membership. Four days later, she is the only remaining contender.
May calls herself a unifier who could act as a bridge between Euroskeptic and progressive sides of the party, although she is the only one of the candidates who backed remaining within the European Union. She did so gently, however, leading commentators in the U.K. to take issue with her low profile during the campaign. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson described May as “deeply disappointing,” arguing that she would not be voting for the 59-year-old who declined to “speak up too loudly” for the Remain camp or “join forces with the Brexiteers.” “Cowardice is not a quality we want in a leader,” Pearson wrote.
As the minister at the top of the Home Office, however — the ministry that oversees policing, immigration and national security — she has won praise from Euroskeptics for taking a hard line on immigration. She introduced onerous minimum salary thresholds for non-E.U. workers wanting to move to the U.K. around 2012, as well as a $25,000 minimum salary requirement for British citizens seeking to bring over a spouse or child to the U.K.
She was more widely praised for deporting radical preacher Abu Qatada and refusing to extradite Pentagon computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the U.S., while also not having a major domestic terrorist attack on her watch.
Often compared to German Chancellor Angela Merkel— which the Financial Times attributes to both women being “non-ideological politician[s] with a ruthless streak who gets on with the job”— May is currently the most powerful woman in the Conservative Party. She is also one of four women, including the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to hold one of what is known as the ‘great offices of state’— prime minister, foreign secretary, chancellor, home secretary.
Like Merkel, May is a daughter of a Protestant clergyman known for her austere demeanour and enigmatic private life. Born Theresa Braiser in the seaside town of Eastbourne on the south coast of England, May went on to study geography at the University of Oxford. It was there, at a Conservative Party student disco, where she was introduced to her future husband Philip May by Benazir Bhutto, later the prime minister of Pakistan.
After university, May took roles in the Bank of England and the Association for Payment Clearing Services before being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997. She went on to become the Conservatives’ first female chairperson in 2002 when the party was in the midst of its 13-year stint as the opposition party to Tony Blair’s government.
That year she delivered a blistering speech warning the mainly right-wing audience that voters considered them as “the nasty party.” “Twice we went to the country unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive…twice we got slaughtered,” she told the party at their annual conference. The speech marked her arrival on the national stage.
By the time the Conservative Party formed a coalition government in 2010, she had more than doubled her majority in her district of Maidenhead, prompting Cameron to appoint her as Minister for Women and Equality as well as Home Secretary.
She has courted controversy in her tenure at the Home Office. She supported the use of the Terrorism Act to detain journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda and was blamed for a ‘passport fiasco’ in 2014, where a large backlog in processing new passport applications hit the hundreds of thousands.
Her latest act was to table an investigatory powers bill, also known as the Snoopers’ Charter, that will give British security agencies new surveillance powers to track citizens’ use of the Internet— to the horror of human rights groups and the privacy chief of the United Nations.
The regular churchgoer is married without children and described as a liberal Conservative who is supportive of gender equality and backer of gay marriage (although she voted against gay adoption rights in 2002). She called herself a “goody two shoes” in a 2012 interview with the Telegraph and opened up about why she hadn’t started a family: “It just didn’t happen,” she said. “You look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don’t have.”
As the longest-serving Home Secretary in over half a century, May was billed as one of the most credible candidates vying for Cameron’s position. Time will only tell whether she will continue her successful record as the Conservative Party’s second female Prime Minister.