May enters the top job with Brexit plans and ‘not a lot of friends’
Theresa May will become Britain’s prime minister after David Cameron resigns on Wednesday. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)
Selected as Britain’s next prime minister in the very process she advised against, Theresa May will now have to negotiate a Brexit deal she didn’t want.
May, 59, insisted to fellow Conservatives just last week their next leader “needs to have won a mandate to lead.” She would have no part in a leadership coronation and preferred an “open, honest and robust debate” to choose David Cameron’s successor.
But how things change rapidly in the roller-coaster ride of British politics.
May’s only remaining opponent, Andrea Leadsom, quit the race on Monday, leaving the front door at 10 Downing Street wide open.
Gone was the promise of a “robust debate” that May endorsed just days ago. She will be Britain’s 76th prime minister by Wednesday night.
Between left and right
It’s just the latest contradiction in May’s 19 years as an MP, including the past six as home secretary, the top official in charge of public safety.
She’s been described as tough on immigration, presenting plans to curb the flow of newcomers to Britain below 100,000 a year. May championed legislation to deport non-EU nationals (including, in theory, Canadians) living in Britain and earning less than £35,000 a year (that’s nearly $60,000 CDN now, with the pound dropping post-Brexit vote).
Her views don’t always skew to the right of the political spectrum, however. In 2012, she became the most senior British politician to take part in a video campaign in support of same-sex marriage.
“Because of her political positioning in the centre of the Tory party, she will be able to unite her party,” said Sean O’Grady, associate editor of Britain’s left-leaning online newspaper the Independent.
“I think she will find it much harder to unite Britain as a country,” he said, after the divisive Brexit vote May campaigned against, albeit lukewarmly.
Stubborn: a key to success
Whatever her opinion on an issue, May is said to stick to her guns, described by veteran Tory MP Kenneth Clarke as a “bloody difficult woman.” Even May herself has agreed with that characterization.
“People see her as quite cold when they first meet her simply because she’s a bit shy and a reserved person,” said Catherine Meyer, a fellow Conservative who’s known May for a decade.
“She’s not coming in with a lot of friends,” Meyer said. May “will appoint the right people [who] she thinks are the right people to be appointed, not because she owes something to somebody.”
May, the daughter of a vicar, studied geography at Oxford. After graduation, she worked at the Bank of England and then held senior positions at the Association for Payment Clearing Services, set up by the U.K. banks in 1985 to manage credit, debit and other payment transactions.
It’s not the typical background for someone who now says she wants to lead a country “that works not just for the privileged few.”
Earlier Monday in Birmingham, England, before she knew with certainty that she would become prime minister, May even pitched herself as a champion for the working class.
“We need to reform the economy to allow more people to share in the country’s prosperity,” she said.
‘Brexit means Brexit’
All her plans, though, will pale in comparison with the biggest project of her premiership: extricating the U.K. from the European Union.
“Brexit means Brexit,” May said at least twice on Monday. And it’s more than a catchy saying; it’s a clear signal that May, who backed the Remain side, won’t try to dilute the plan to leave the EU, respecting the will of a slim majority of voters.
She’ll go through with it, just not right now. May has promised not to invoke Article 50 — the formal process by which a member state exits the EU — this year. Much preparation remains.
She’s willing to use EU citizens as bargaining chips, not yet saying whether they’ll be allowed to stay in Britain even if they were living here before the referendum. That will be up for discussion, May says.
Some parts of her Brexit negotiation strategy remain unclear, though.
In her first speech as Conservative leader on Monday afternoon, she spoke for one minute and 29 seconds and took no questions.
She’ll have many to answer as the new occupant of 10 Downing Street.