Theresa May is the Conservative Party leader and the first female British Prime Minister in 21st century, who took the charge of the UK at one of the most turbulent times in UK’s recent political history.
The 59-year-old home secretary’s carefully cultivated image of political dependability and unflappability appears to have made her the right person at the right time as the fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the EU smashed possible rivals out of contention.
But the EU referendum which David Cameron called and lost – the year after leading the party to its first election win in 23 years – turned political certainties on their head and, as other candidates fell by the wayside after the PM’s own resignation, Mrs May emerged as the “unity” candidate appointed by Queen Elizabeth II.
It is her toughness which has become her political hallmark. She has coped with being one of only a small number of women in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party for 17 years and has been prepared to tell her party some hard truths – famously informing activists at the 2002 conference that “you know what some people call us – the nasty party”.
Even before entering Downing Street, she made history by becoming the second longest serving home secretary in the past 100 years.
Born in Sussex but raised largely in Oxfordshire, the young Theresa Brasier, as she was then, threw herself into village life, taking part in a pantomime that was produced by her father and working in the bakery on Saturdays to earn pocket money.
Friends recall a tall, fashion-conscious young woman who from an early age spoke of her ambition to be the first woman prime minister. Like Margaret Thatcher (first ever female British Prime Minister), she went to Oxford University to study and, like so many others of her generation, found that her personal and political lives soon became closely intertwined.
In 1976, in her third year, she met Philip (husband now), who was president of the Oxford Union, a well-known breeding ground for future political leaders. The story has it that they were introduced at a Conservative Association disco by the subsequent Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. They got married in 1980.
After graduating with a degree in Geography, May went to work in the city, initially starting work at the Bank of England and later rising to become head of the European Affairs Unit of the Association for Payment Clearing Services. But it was already clear that she saw her future in politics. She was elected as a local councillor in Merton, South London, and served her ward for a decade, rising to become the deputy leader. However, she was setting her sights even higher.
Mrs May, who has become a confidante as well as role model for aspiring female MPs – told prospective candidates before the 2015 election that
“there is always a seat out there with your name on it”.
Early days in political career:
In her case – like that of Margaret Thatcher – it took a bit of time for her to find hers. She first dipped her toe in the water in 1992, where she stood in the safe Labour seat of North West Durham, coming a distant second to Hilary Armstrong, who went on to become Labour’s chief whip in the Blair government. Two years later, she stood in Barking, east London, in a by-election where – with the Conservative government at the height of its unpopularity – she got fewer than 2,000 votes and saw her vote share dip more than 20%. But her luck was about to change.
The taste of victory:
The Conservatives’ electoral fortunes may have hit a nadir in 1997 when Tony Blair came to power in a Labour landslide, but there was a silver lining for the party and for the aspiring politician when she won the seat of Maidenhead in Berkshire. It’s a seat she has held ever since.
An early advocate of Conservative “modernisation” in the wilderness years that followed, Mrs May quickly joined the shadow cabinet in 1999 under William Hague as ‘Shadow Education Secretary’ and in 2002 she became the party’s first female chairman under Iain Duncan Smith. She then held a range of senior posts under Michael Howard but was conspicuously not part of the “Notting Hill set” which grabbed control of the party after its third successive defeat in 2005 and laid David Cameron and George Osborne’s path to power. This was perhaps reflected in the fact that she was initially given the rather underwhelming job of shadow leader of the House of Commons. But she gradually raised her standing and by 2009 had become shadow work and pensions secretary.
Nevertheless, her promotion to the job of the Home Secretary when the Conservatives joined with the Lib Dems to form the first coalition government in 70 years was still something of a surprise – given that Chris Grayling had been shadowing the brief in opposition.
While some in Downing Street worried that the Home Office was becoming her own personal fiefdom, she engendered loyalty among her ministers and was regarded as “unmovable” as her tough-talking style met with public approval even when the department’s record did not always seem so strong.
Despite her liberal instincts in some policy areas, she frequently clashed with the then deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. After one “difficult” meeting with Mr Clegg, he reportedly told David Laws:
“You know, I’ve grown to rather like Theresa May… ‘She’s a bit of an Ice Maiden and has no small talk whatsoever – none.
On the plus side, crime levels fell, the UK avoided a mass terrorist attack and in 2013, she successfully deported radical cleric Abu Qatada – something she lists as one of her proudest achievements, along with preventing the extradition of American computer hacker Gary McKinnon.
Her views on Brexit: Theresa May has insisted “Brexit means Brexit” and there will be no second referendum on the issue.
This is what The Guardian said about her:
“In a political party that struggles to shake off its elitist, old Etonian, yah-boo-sucks reputation, May represents a different kind of politician: a calm headmistress in a chamber full of over-excitable public schoolboys. She holds herself at one remove… her obdurate stance has earned her some vociferous critics. There are those who claim that, while she takes care never to sully her own hands with the grubby business of political backstabbing, she will send out her team to issue ferocious briefings against her rivals.”
Mrs May has never been one of the most clubbable of politicians and is someone who prefers not having to tour the tea rooms of the House of Commons – where tittle-tattle is freely exchanged. Generally thought to be in the mainstream of Conservative thinking on most economic and law and order issues, she has also challenged convention by attacking police stop and search powers and calling for a probe into the application of Sharia Law in British communities.
She also expressed a personal desire to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights but later said she would not pursue this as PM due to a lack of parliamentary support – an example of what many believe will be pragmatism in office.
Her social attitudes are slightly harder to pin down. She backed same-sex marriage. She expressed a personal view in 2012 that the legal limit for abortion should be lowered from 24 to 20 weeks. Along with most Conservative MPs, she voted against an outright ban on foxhunting.
What is undisputable is that at 59, Mrs May will be the oldest leader to enter Downing Street since James Callaghan in 1976 and will be the first prime minister since Ted Heath who does not have children.