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What you need to know about Theresa May, the UK’s next prime minister

Theresa May
Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
Out of the shadows.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Theresa May will become prime minister of the UK today (July 13) without ever having won an election. With no campaign to judge from, and confronted by a personality that’s never particularly courted attention, the country is now trying to work out exactly who its new leader is.

More than once in recent profiles, May has been called a “grown up.” That’s a damning indictment of the way British politics has descended into insult and absurdity. But it’s also specific: She’s seen as one of the more serious and intellectually rigorous members of the Conservative party, which is in power. In her role as home secretary (a key position concerned with security and terrorism) since 2010, she has had the longest run since the 19th century.

In a political environment that has been dominated by big personalities and shiny promises, May has been described as cool (including in this excellent profile). But it’s worth keeping in mind that female leaders have often faced more criticism than their male counterparts for not coming across as “warm.” That impression of her temperament could be based upon a lack of information to judge her on, or it could just be her personality. In any case, she has used her distance from her party’s cliquey, boys-club image to criticize the Conservatives as the “nasty party,” and has spearheaded an attempt to change its image.

May will have the unenviable job of leading the UK out of Europe, though she and Cameron opposed Brexit. Since the exit was approved by a majority of Brits in a referendum on June 23, there has been much confusion about what will happen and how. The architects of the “leave” campaign have mostly since quit.

There have been calls for a second referendum, and some have questioned whether the UK will ever actually leave the bloc. May has said her plan is to carry out the will of the majority. (“Brexit means Brexit,” she has said, an extraordinary aphorism in which an invented word is said to denote itself.)

One stand-out feature of May’s career has been a determination to reform the police—for which she has been criticized as meddling and praised as impressively tough. While highly competent, with experience overseeing education, transport, environment, work, and pensions, she has never been in charge of the economy or had a business-facing role.

May has drawn major criticism for her stances on immigration. She suggested, for example, the expulsion of foreign students as soon as they graduated as a measure to curb migration. She was also at forefront of a move to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, a respected safeguard.

She has also been responsible for—and will continue to oversee—the country’s response to threats of terrorism. In particular, the imposition of mass surveillance on large swathes of the population, an issue dubbed the “snooper’s charter,” is still under debate.

May will be the UK’s second woman prime minster, following Margaret Thatcher. Unlike her predecessor, she has made a point of helping women coming up through the party, founding Women2Win, a group to support and mentor women, in 2005. Her ascension to the top job in the UK will mean two of Europe’s five biggest economies (the UK and Germany) will be run by women.

May will join a growing number of high-profile woman in British politics. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, has been a powerful force in the UK political scene since a referendum in Scotland narrowly rejected a proposal for the country to split from the UK in 2014. Andrea Leadsom, who challenged May for the leadership of the Conservative party, pulled out before a vote could be held (after some ill-advised swipes at at May’s childless status during her brief campaign).

The country is busily extrapolating from the little they know of May. In a moment caught on a live mic he thought was turned off, Kenneth Clarke, a Tory grandee, last week referred to May as a “bloody difficult woman.” Photographers, in love with the trope of depicting women’s shoes beside the more uniform footwear of men, have snapped her in leopard-print heels. Is May a person of extremes? An enigma? A straight shooter? As of this afternoon, we’ll start finding out.

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