Theresa May, the longest-serving home secretary of recent times, has been known as a modernizer, an authoritarian – and above all, a pragmatist. Samira Shackle reports from London on Britain’s new prime minister.
It is characteristic of the upheaval in Britain in recent weeks that Theresa May will step into office much sooner than had been anticipated. The Conservative Party had planned a nine-week leadership contest that was cut short after the shock withdrawal of her rival Andrea Leadsom on Monday. This means that May had 48 hours rather than nine weeks to prepare her new government.
“As someone who wanted the UK to stay in the EU, there will be pressure to give prominent cabinet roles to those who backed Brexit,” says Alex Forsyth, political correspondent at the BBC. “May has promised radical social and economic reform – fuelling speculation over the future of current senior figures. With limited time to make delicate political choices, the new prime minister must weigh change versus continuity, while trying to unite the Conservative Party after a bruising EU referendum campaign,” he told DW.
May, 59, has been home secretary since 2010, making her the longest-serving home secretary in modern times. Long known to have leadership ambitions, she has carefully cultivated an image of decisiveness, unflappability and calm in a crisis. As top Brexit campaigners Michael Gove and Boris Johnson jostled with each other before falling out of the Conservative leadership contest all together, May emphasized that she was the “serious” and “grown up” candidate to take Britain through these tumultuous times.
While her choice of footwear garners a disproportionate amount of attention in Britain’s media (she famously favors colorful kitten heels), May has for 17 years been one of a small number of women at the top of the Conservative party.
As home secretary she made a name for herself with her hardline positions on immigration, which the government pledged to reduce to the tens of thousands (at the last count, net migration stood at 330,000). In 2015, she gave a controversial speech in which she said that immigration makes it “impossible to build a cohesive society.”
Among her punitive policies was a rule barring British citizens from bringing spouses or children into the country unless they earned more than £18,600, regardless of their non-British spouse’s income. Families split up because of the rule are currently challenging the law in the supreme court. “As someone working with refugees, I have seen that May’s policies have actively and directly made life worse for migrants to this country,” Lucy Walker, a London-based caseworker, told DW. “Given the current climate of increased hostility to all immigrants, I a profoundly worried about what her premiership will mean.”
Another controversial policy proposed by May was the so-called snoopers charter that would require internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing history.
Although liberal commentators argue that these policies illustrate an authoritarian streak, May is broadly in line with mainstream conservative opinion. “Many of the positions May has taken as home secretary have won her credibility with the right-wing of the party, such as her position on deportation, her desire to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, her general position on immigration, and her willingness to stand up to police federation,” says Matt Cole, a teaching fellow in the department of history at Birmingham University.
However, May is also seen as a pragmatist who has taken different positions during her long career in politics. In 2002, she gave a speech warning that Conservatives were seen as the “nasty party” and needed to reform. She backed same-sex marriage, and recently warned against racial profiling by police. “May was the original modernizer and those of us who have been involved with trying to create socially liberal spaces within the party have always looked to her as a founding light, even though she’s moved away from that,” says conservative writer Kate Maltby.
May campaigned to remain in the EU, but she has said that “Brexit means Brexit” and that there will not be a second referendum. In addition to promising to “make a success” of EU withdrawal, she has pledged radical reforms to aid social mobility and the most disadvantaged in society.
Her air of calm and her political experience mean that many see her as a firm pair of hands to steer the country through challenging times. “I am not a Conservative voter, but I am relieved to see that someone with solid governmental experience has taken charge in this chaotic period,” says Manchester-based lawyer Matt Pembroke. “I don’t want to see more upheaval in the form of an election, I just want someone who can try to salvage something from the disaster we are in,” he told DW.