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Madame Prime Minister (By Default)
How Theresa May came to be the last woman standing in Britain.
Since the Brexit vote on June 23, British politics has been in meltdown. It’s forced out Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, brought intense pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, ended or suspended the careers of all the successful Brexit leaders — Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove — and on Monday, another challenger for the leadership, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, bit the dust. Today’s British political scene resembles the final act of Hamlet. Virtually all the principal players have fallen, and the survivors await the arrival of a Fortinbras. After a dizzying couple of weeks, it turns out that this will be Theresa May.
May, Britain’s current home secretary until Wednesday, when she will take over as prime minister, has built a career out of keeping her head down, and now, it seems, will have kept her head down all the way to 10 Downing Street. She is not well-known internationally, or even particularly well-known nationally. She rations her public pronouncements carefully. It is not simply a matter of preferring a low profile; May has calculated, correctly as it happens, that the route to the top of the greasy pole lies in determined pursuit of an objective.
May’s talent for quiet steeliness was in evidence during what proved to be the final days before her victory. Voting among Conservative Members of Parliament left two candidates for the leadership: May and the far less politically experienced Leadsom. Party rules then called for holding an election among Tory party members, the results of which were not expected until September. Over the weekend, however, Leadsom’s campaign, which had won a few high-profile backers, imploded — the result of some ill-judged remarks by her about the virtues of motherhood in a politician. (May is childless.) A different sort of politician might have lashed out. May made no high-profile riposte, while social media tarred and feathered her opponent. On Monday, Leadsom threw in the sponge. The episode epitomized May’s ability to sit back and watch rivals hoist themselves with their own petard.
Born in Sussex, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, May is no Bullingdon Club member. After attending a Roman Catholic primary school she went to grammar (i.e., a selective state) school, and then studied geography at Oxford. Both her parents died when she was in her mid-20s, and she has no siblings. She married Philip May in 1980; their marriage is reportedly very happy. She has eminently sensible hobbies, such as walking and cooking.
As with some other climbers, May’s ambition has expressed itself over the years less in overt lobbying for preferment than through diligence and professionalism. After election to Parliament in 1997 as MP for Maidenhead, a wealthy area 30 miles outside of London, she rose rapidly to become the Tory Party’s first female chairman (the post is so designated) and progressed through various shadow portfolios during the party’s opposition years up to 2010, when she was made home secretary.
By common consent, the Home Office is a career graveyard. Few incumbents survive more than two or three years. The brief tends to snag its incumbents on such thorny matters as prison breakouts, failures in counterinsurgency, mishandled immigration and deportation cases, drug policies, and so on. It requires an ability to watch a plethora of balls at once. Careers can be derailed by a single misjudgment in a deportation case, negligence associated with a terrorist attack, or ill-judged intervention in some aspect of social policy. May managed to chalk up six years over the two Cameron administrations, building her the reputation for competence that is her defining trait.
Even as other Tory leading lights captured the spotlight and May bided her time, she managed to remain just high-profile enough to be consistently mentioned as a possibility to become prime minister. Those who ignored her did so at their peril. She has picked up a few enemies — notably Gove — but has managed, without being much loved, at least to avoid being hated enough to have inspired a “Stop May” campaign in the leadership stakes. Even two years ago, when Johnson was still the anointed one, May edged him out in at least one poll among Tory activists, who would have decided the leadership and thus the premiership.
During the referendum campaign, May was hardly delirious in her advocacy of Remain — far less so, for instance, than the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, another one who was once touted as a future PM but who has since become untenable. By keeping quiet while nominally backing government policy — rather like the then-future Labour leader Gordon Brown during the Iraq war — May has dodged the blame for its failure. She managed to pull this off even though much of the campaign debate — on security, cross-border policing, and counterterrorism — falls squarely within the home secretary’s brief. May has proven adept at avoiding other kinds of political pitfall, too: She emerged pristine from the MPs’ expenses scandal exposed by the Daily Telegraph in 2009. A low profile suits both May’s austere, no-nonsense personality and her political ambition: Her one concession to personality is an ever so slightly vampish taste in shoes, a favorite being leopard skin print heels from Russell & Bromley.
May will be Britain’s second female prime minister. Comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are inevitable, but not wholly to the point. (Apart from the sexist point implicit in thinking that because both are women, they must be compared. Did anyone compare, say, David Cameron with Harold Wilson on the basis of their both being men?) Some of the background matches — they are both daughters of provincial lower-middle-class parents who went to grammar school and then to Oxford. But May is no Hayek-imbibing ideologue.
Instead, May is a pragmatic, largely unideological “one-nation” Tory like John Major, Harold Macmillan, and, to some extent, Cameron. Coined by the 19th-century Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, the phrase — then connoting something like noblesse oblige — is now used to evoke the idea that in government Conservatives have a duty of care toward the worst-off. It also implies that in government, what works is more important than ideological rigor. As with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this pragmatism extends to the effortlessly executed volte-face. As recently as April, she was repeating her wish to withdraw the U.K. from the European Convention on Human Rights; last week, when launching her bid for the top job, May disavowed any intention of doing so.
She pitches herself as a workhorse – someone who is “not a showy politician,” who doesn’t ‘go drinking in Parliament’s bars,’ but “just get[s] on with the job” at a time when the (mostly) men around her are either knifing one another or committing seppuku. In a speech she famously said in 2002, as the new chair of the Conservative Party, that the Tories had lost power because they were perceived as the “Nasty party,” going on to say that the “Nasty party” label could be shrugged only “by avoiding behavior and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralizing, no more hypocritical finger-wagging.” The speech made her reputation — but it was also slightly surprising from someone whose political identity owes a lot to Anglican morality. That morality has at times led her in perhaps unexpected directions: her liberal stance on same-sex marriage, for instance; her view, in the teeth of opposition from the police’s trade union, that the police service should not be exempt from austerity cuts; and her recent avowal to address executive overpayment. At the same time, May enthusiastically backed the so-called Snooper’s Charter for counterterrorism agency powers to access internet users’ browsing history.
May is not above a bit of nastiness herself. She condoned the detention in 2013 of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, under the Terrorism Act. (Miranda had been in Berlin to see the filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was working on a documentary about Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures at the time.) In 2011, May, who has taken a hard line against immigration, also implied falsely that a foreigner had been permitted to stay in the U.K. simply because he owned a cat, using the case as an example for why a British law called the Human Rights Act had gone too far. (Having claimed that the cat had prevented his deportation, May found herself slapped down by the Royal Courts of Justice, which said it had “nothing to do with” the decision.) In the launch event for her leadership campaign, staged before Johnson flamed out, she mocked her rival’s negotiating skills, whose one fruit, May said, was to secure the city of London “three nearly new water cannon[s]” from Germany in 2014 to help control unrest (the cannons, never used, are now slated to be sold off). Like all home secretaries she has extended the ludicrous “hard line” on drugs, in ways both silly — a 2014 ban on khat, for instance — and rather sinister: She allegedly tried to alter the contents of a government report that came to a conclusion she didn’t like — that tough laws had no effect on drug use.
May’s brand of low-profile ruthlessness was also on display in her spat with Gove. In 2014, as education minister, Gove criticized May’s Home Office for failing to crack down on the supposed spread of Islamic extremism in schools in Birmingham. Gove — not one to shy away from ruthlessness himself, as in his dispatch of Johnson during the leadership campaign — named names: Specifically, he blamed a civil servant, Charles Farr, director-general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, for failing to curb the spread of extremism in Birmingham’s schools. Farr was a key advisor to May on security. Within hours May had put a private letter from her to cabinet colleagues on the Home Office website, which suggested that the blame lay not with her department but with Gove’s education ministry. Cameron had to step in to part his squabbling ministers, but May emerged victorious: In the ensuing fallout, Gove was the one who had to apologize. Their mutual rancor seems to continue unabated; it would certainly be surprising if Gove lands a significant post in May’s cabinet.
May’s premiership will be focused on the issue that brought her to power, and felled so many before her. Those who believe May — a nominal Remainer — will find a way to keep Britain within the European Union are likely to be disappointed. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said on the campaign trail and she reiterated the point on Monday. Though Leadsom’s demise removes one immediate source of pressure to deliver Brexit, she will still be under acute backbench and activist pressure to do so, and in fairly short order. The immediate question is when to trigger the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50, which initiates the two-year process of separating from the EU. May has said there will be no early election, though if the Labour opposition’s disarray continues, it may tempt her. But even if she goes to the country before the scheduled date (2020) it will surely not be before she has a package for approval from the Brexit talks.
By all accounts, she will play hardball in the negotiations. In a much-cited and supposedly impromptu remark recorded by Sky TV, the Tory grandee Kenneth Clarke described May as “bloody difficult.” May has since turned the remark into a quip, pledging to turn her talents for being difficult against European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in service of the issue whose success or failure will define her time in office.
Photo credit: CARL COURT/Getty Images