IN THE WAKE of Brexit, as political reputations got shredded and other 10 Downing Street hopefuls of the ruling Conservative Party—from former London Mayor Boris Johnson to Andrea Leadsom—fell apart around her, the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May has replaced David Cameron as the country’s prime minister, the first woman since Margaret Thatcher to hold the post. Described often as a ‘liberal conservative’, May has outlasted and outmanoeuvred every other rival. Her rise to the top, even as several other candidates and prominent campaigners of the referendum have fallen by the wayside, is a reflection of her skills as a political survivor.
On paper, May was one of the top Conservative leaders asking for Britain to ‘Remain’ within the EU. According to a Loughborough University study on the number of press statements put out by top leaders across the world during the run-up to the referendum, it seems May rarely ever campaigned for ‘Remain’. Several leaders within and outside her party issued more statements; even Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had more to say. Observers have described this as a calculated strategy, one hedged to help her stay relevant within the party and in public prominence regardless of which way the vote went. As an opinion piece in The Telegraph (UK) said, ‘This could all be part of May’s plan: to cast herself as the Brexit-friendly Remainer who can appeal to her colleagues in the Out camp with her toughness on immigration. Come the day David Cameron steps down, she can then attract the broadest support to replace him.’
While Theresa May is viewed as a liberal conservative, as a home secretary she has been vocal against immigration
The daughter of a vicar, May, unlike Cameron, comes from a middle-class family. She is said to have entered the political fray more than 30 years ago, according to the Conservative party website, by ‘stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative association before serving as a councilor in the London Borough of Merton from 1986 to 1994.’ After two failures to win a seat in British Parliament, she eventually won a seat in 1997. She’s served in several positions since then, before being appointed home secretary in 2010. She made a name for herself back in 2002, when she warned the Tories that they needed to stop becoming ‘the nasty party’.
While she is viewed as a liberal conservative and has spoken against gender wage disparity and for same-sex marriage, as the UK’s home secretary she has been vocal in her opposition to what she has termed ‘high levels’ of immigration. She was instrumental in instituting a rule that only skilled immigrants who earned £37,000 or more every year would be allowed to settle in the UK. In 2013, the infamous ‘go home’ vans—which displayed billboards that read, ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’—were introduced under her watch.
She will now helm the country after it has chosen to quit the European Union, a move that is expected to disrupt its economy even if it manages to negotiate exit terms with Brussels that do not entirely cut off its access to the Union’s common market. There is now hard work to do. How May manages this will possibly shape the course of both British and European history.