With Boris Johnson out of the Conservative Party leadership race, chances are that Theresa May will be Britain’s next prime minister. Looking at the five candidates, it seems almost certain that May and Michael Gove—the man who pushed Johnson out of the race today—will be the finalists that party members will be asked to choose between. British bookies already have May as the “odds-on favourite” to win the job when party votes are counted in September.
So, who is Theresa May?
In the speech she made to kick off her campaign to replace David Cameron, May positioned herself as the can-do candidate. While “some politicians seek high office because they’re driven by ideological fervor [and] others seek it for reasons of ambition or glory,” she said, “My reasons are much simpler: I grew up the daughter of a local vicar, and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major. Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.” May said that while she may not be a “showy” politician, “I just get on with the job in front of me.” Her strongest pitch is that she’s experienced, down-to-earth, and uncontroversial—which is what the country needs right now. “If ever there was a time for a prime minister who is ready and able to do the job from Day 1, this is it,” she said.
May has served as Britain’s home secretary since 2010, and although that is one of the four “great offices of state” in British politics (along with the prime minister; the chancellor of the exchequer, who is in charge of the nation’s finances; and the foreign secretary), home secretaries, especially those who have been in post for extended periods, rarely move up to the top spot. That’s because the job involves managing contentious areas like policing, immigration, and homeland security, all of which are political minefields. Somehow, she has been able to avoid the worst of them.
Her six years in the job make May the longest-serving home secretary in a century, and she is widely thought to have performed well. Even the liberal Guardian acknowledged that she “oversaw the most fundamental reforms of policing for 50 years. The official crime rate has continued to fall on her watch. … She has not been afraid to confront the police over stop and search, or such historic injustices as Hillsborough,” referring to the 1989 soccer stadium disaster, where 96 deaths were recently judged to have been caused by “gross negligence” by the police and flaws with the stadium design. The Guardian also noted that “May has set as high priorities the issues of violence against women, including failures to investigate rape, and modern slavery. “
One of the most high-profile cases of May’s tenure was her protracted attempt to deport radical Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada over the objections of the European Court of Human Rights. May’s performance in this insanely complicated case was criticized by the opposition Labour Party and Euroskeptic members of her own party, but she eventually achieved a solution that was acceptable to all sides: Abu Qatada was sent to Jordan after Jordanian authorities promised not to use torture against him. (He was eventually acquitted of all charges.) In her speech Thursday, May pointed out how hands-on she had been: “I flew to Jordan and negotiated the treaty that got him out of Britain for good.”
She sounds like a shoo-in for PM, right? Except: May’s biggest drawback is that she was on the Remain side of the Brexit debate. Still, she was smart enough to avoid too much involvement in the campaign. The Daily Telegraph praised her for playing “a clever hand during the EU referendum by staying out of the fray and letting events play out around her. Her restrained approach has helped her avoid alienating Tory Brexiteers, and the polls suggest her reputation has held up better than some of her potential leadership rivals.”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, commentator Cathy Newman pointed out that in a contest against Gove, “ordinary members may well pick a man who battled for Brexit, rather than a woman who only half-heartedly pitched to Remain.” However, Newman speculated, “you’ll hear a lot more from Mrs May about how she, the state-school-educated girl from Sussex, can unify divided Britain.”
Newman compared May to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another pragmatic center-right politician whose father was a clergyman. And of course, May wouldn’t be the Conservatives’ first female leader or Britain’s first woman prime minister. In the past, she has denied that she’s the heir to Margaret Thatcher. But as the campaign heats up, you couldn’t blame her for encouraging comparisons with the Iron Lady, who is still beloved by the voters May needs.