It took a few of the most turbulent weeks in the history of British politics, but Westminster’s own game of thrones finally has a winner. Theresa May, the former Home Secretary, succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister on July 13, little more than two weeks after he announced he would quit following the country’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Now it’s up to the new occupant of 10 Downing Street to figure out exactly how that will happen.
The ascent of a second woman to the office of Prime Minister invites inevitable comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, who remade Britain during her 11-year rule, but May would seem to have more in common with another powerful female leader: Angela Merkel. Like the German Chancellor, May is a clergyman’s daughter who is guarded about her private life, driven by duty rather than fierce ideology or an overt desire for the limelight. But unlike Merkel she is a hard-liner on immigration who has long been skeptical of the E.U.
The 59-year-old first became a Member of Parliament in 1997, just as her center-right Conservative Party entered a 13-year period in opposition after running the country since 1979. She became the party’s first female chairperson in 2002 and made a name for herself in a major speech that year urging the Conservatives to pursue a more compassionate approach. “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies,” she said. “You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”
It would take eight more years for the Conservatives to win back power, and when Cameron formed a coalition government in 2010 he appointed May to lead the Home Office, the large British ministry that oversees immigration, policing and domestic security. She would remain in that position–one of the most difficult in the British government–for six years, becoming the longest-serving Home Secretary in six decades and one of the most powerful people in Cameron’s Cabinet.
May’s tenure at the Home Office was not without controversy; she was heavily criticized for her immigration policies–including so-called Go Home vans, which toured the country offering to help illegal immigrants self-deport–and minimum salary requirements for Britons wishing to bring foreign families to the U.K. But she also introduced a wave of police reforms and saw crime in England and Wales fall during her time in office to its lowest point in three decades. People who worked with her at the department describe her as a tough, sometimes ruthless boss who takes a keen interest in the minutiae of policy.
During the E.U. referendum campaign, May backed remaining within the bloc but deliberately kept a low profile, split between her personal distrust of the European project and her loyalty to Cameron, who was campaigning furiously to keep Britain in. When the country went the other way and Cameron announced his resignation, other candidates quickly self-immolated. May emerged as the unity candidate–she even appointed Boris Johnson, a major figure in the Brexit campaign and a leadership rival, as Foreign Secretary. She is an ally of Cameron’s who has the trust of the modernizing wing of the party, and an instinctive Euroskeptic who could be counted upon to bring the U.K. out of the E.U.
May’s premiership will be defined by how she manages that departure from the European Union, which Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has warned could take up to six years to complete. It will certainly not be hasty; May has said repeatedly she will not trigger Article 50 of the E.U. Treaty, which starts a formal two-year process of withdrawal, until 2017.
Preparation will still begin right away, however. May quickly appointed David Davis, an acknowledged Brexiteer, to lead negotiations with bureaucrats in the E.U.’s Brussels headquarters. The goal will be to maintain the U.K.’s access to the single European market but gain the ability to set limits on E.U. migration–the so-called “Norway plus” option modeled on that country’s relationship with the E.U. That won’t be an easy sell–Europe will certainly insist on free movement as a condition of access to the market, and hard feelings remain after Brexit. But European Council President Donald Tusk sounded a positive note as May took office, saying July 13 that “after this so-called divorce procedure, the U.K. will remain our closest partner.”
Whether a compromise can be forged will rest on May, especially since any deal with Brussels will have to be approved by her 27 counterparts still in the union. She has pledged to be a firm negotiator but also to maintain stability as the discussions begin. “We cannot let [Brexit] consume us,” she said. “There are a lot of other things the government has to do as well.”
Chief among those is repairing the rift in British society exposed by the referendum. The decision to leave was influenced as much by lack of opportunity and distrust of government as by animus toward the E.U. She has signaled a shift toward economic populism with plans to overhaul corporate governance and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Speaking moments after her appointment, May said Britain was at a “time of great national change” but pledged to “forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world.”
May may not be another Iron Lady, but she is content to be considered a “bloody difficult woman”–a term used by a senior Tory to describe her that she has reclaimed as a badge of honor. “Politics could do with some bloody difficult women, actually,” May said. The E.U. had better get ready.
This appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of TIME.
- What a Photographer Saw in the West Bank
- The Dirty Secrets of Alternative Plastics
- Accenture’s Chief AI Officer on Why This Is a Defining Moment
- We Should Get Paid for Our Online Data: Column
- Inside COP28's Big 'Experiment'
- The 100 Must-Read Books of 2023
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time