LONDON (AP) — After all of the flamboyant characters and very public backstabbing in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister, the winner turned out to be an understated workhorse who maintained a low profile throughout the campaign.
Home Secretary Theresa May, 59, is not well-known internationally, but she has served for six years in one of Britain’s toughest jobs, playing an important role in counter-terrorism policy, and will now take charge of delicate negotiations to separate Britain from the European Union.
She was less visible – and less talked about as a likely future prime minister – than Treasury Chief George Osborne and former London Mayor Boris Johnson, but she proved to be the stealth candidate, outmaneuvering both in the intense competition to follow Cameron at 10 Downing Street.
During the EU referendum campaign, Osborne was passionate about remaining in the EU, and lost his leadership hopes when voters turned the other way. Johnson led the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, but never formally entered the leadership race because of dwindling support among his party’s lawmakers.
By contrast, May stayed largely out of the referendum fray. She tepidly backed remaining in the EU in a single speech, then remained largely out of sight as the behemoths of the Conservative Party – including Cameron and Justice Secretary Michael Gove – did each other in.
“We do have this remarkable situation in British politics now where the people who lead a fantastically successful campaign that got 17 million people to vote to leave the European Union have all but disappeared,” said Anand Menon, Professor of European Politics at King’s College London.
Her triumph is no surprise to colleagues who say she is cool and calm under pressure. She has grown in confidence and stature after six years in the limelight, projecting authority in front of TV cameras that once made her nervous. She is not flashy, does not call attention to herself, and had seemed content with her public role as a loyal Cameron backer.
There is no doubt she has her critics. Conservative Party elder statesman Kenneth Clarke last week called her a “bloody difficult woman” in an unguarded moment when he didn’t know he was being filmed.
May has long seemed aware that the Conservative Party is saddled with an elitist, out-of-touch image. Serving as party chairwoman in 2002, she warned that the Conservatives had become known as “the nasty party” and needed to change their ways and broaden their appeal.
In her brief, successful leadership campaign, she took a more populist stance somewhat at odds with her “law and order” image. She emphasized the need for more equal opportunity and fairness within Britain.
“Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others,” she said. “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man.”
As home secretary, May has earned a reputation as a reliable, even-tempered minister who capably ran a sprawling department responsible for counter-terrorism policy, policing, immigration, border control and drug policy.
She was criticized at times for problems with border staffing but generally got high marks from politicians and the media while taking a hard line on national security matters and calling for easier deportation of extremists.
She took steps to limit the “stop and search” powers of police and used her position to criticize police and firefighting departments for lacking diversity.
May ran a largely scandal-free department and managed to keep her personal life out of the news – the only exception being a slight media fascination with her impressive collection of shoes. She has spoken out at times about living with diabetes and colleagues have said they don’t believe the illness will have any impact on her ability to serve as prime minister.
May is a vicar’s daughter who came up through Conservative Party ranks, working behind the scenes at her local Conservative Association before becoming a city councilor in a London borough, then entering Parliament in 1997. Her position within the party was helped when she served as its chairwoman in 2002 and 2003.
Like several other top leaders in her party, May was educated at Oxford, where she was introduced to her future husband Philip by Benazir Bhutto, who went on to become Pakistan’s leader before she was assassinated.
They met at a student Conservative Association disco – at the height of the disco era – and first bonded over their mutual love of cricket.
She worked at the Bank of England and later as a financial consultant and international affairs adviser at the Association for Payment Clearing Services before entering politics.
She married Philip in 1980. The couple did not have children – which was briefly a bone of contention during the abbreviated leadership campaign when a rival suggested having children made a person better qualified to serve as prime minister.
May is known as a private person who does not easily bare her soul in public. She has only rarely spoken about her father’s death in a car accident one year after her marriage or the disappointment of not being able to have a child.
Stressing her extensive experience near the top of government, her campaign for the top job was launched with the slogan “Theresa May is ready to be prime minister from Day One.”
Day One will be Wednesday, when she is expected to visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace before assuming her formidable new role.