New British PM's style: Get on with it

Described variously as competent and a difficult woman, Theresa May works hard but is not chummy. Her single luxury: A lifetime subscription to Vogue.

LONDON • Her beloved father, an Anglican vicar, died in a car crash when she was 25, after she had been married only a year, and her mother, suffering from multiple sclerosis, died a few months later. For Theresa May, a cherished only child, the shock was devastating.

It brought her even closer to her husband, Philip, two years younger, whom she had met at Oxford, at a Conservative Party disco. They bonded over cricket and silly university debates, like the one where Philip induced her to speak for the motion "That sex is good… but success is better".

Both became bankers, and Mrs May threw herself into the Conservative politics that had entranced her since the age of 12, when she liked to argue with her father and he asked her, in order to maintain neutrality in his parish, not to parade her Tory colours in public.

"Politics captured me," Mrs May said in 2014, adding: "That sounds terribly trite (but) I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be part of the debate."

On Wednesday, Mrs May, 59, became Britain's Prime Minister, the last adult standing after other senior members of her party - the clever younger men from Britain's elite schools, like her predecessor David Cameron - schemed each other out of contention.


Mrs May outside 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, when she became Britain’s Prime Minister. The Tory leader, a traditional economic and social conservative, has signalled a desire to give her party a new focus on the need to build a fairer society. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

For Mrs May, Britain's second female prime minister, it is a job she never publicly acknowledged wanting, until Mr Cameron, bluff and self-confident, pushed his luck once too often, lost the referendum on keeping Britain in the European Union and quit.

Mrs May, who had been home secretary, is considered "a safe pair of hands", unflashy and even dull, who seems to be a candidate of continuity. But the country's dire circumstances may demand more. And Mrs May, a traditional economic and social conservative in many respects, has signalled a desire to give her party a new focus on the need to build a fairer society.

With Britain deeply divided over its decision to leave the EU, its place in the world in flux, its unity threatened by calls for Scottish independence and its economy at risk, the times may require that Mrs May be both steady and bold.

Her six-year tenure at the Home Office showed her to be a tough operator and put her in charge of a number of flashpoint issues. She demanded police reforms to reduce racial profiling. She helped push through surveillance policies that had to balance fears of terrorism against civil liberties and confronted public pressure to reduce immigration, failing to meet government targets for doing so.

If sometimes at odds with Mr Cameron's inner circle - she was a quiet critic of the government's budget austerity - she nonetheless built a reputation as a smart and competent minister.

Mr Damian Green, who worked for her as a Home Office minister of state until 2014, said: "Theresa doesn't do verbiage, doesn't do speeches for the sake of making speeches. One of her virtues is that when she says something today she means it tomorrow."

DEEDS, NOT WORDS

If you look at somebody like Angela Merkel and think of what she's actually achieved, you know, there are still people who don't rate her, are a bit dismissive, perhaps because of the way she looks and dresses. What matters is, what has she actually done? And, when you look at her abilities in terms of negotiation, and steering Germany through a difficult time, then hats off to her.

THERESA MAY, in a 2012 interview with the Daily Telegraph.

But she will have to bind a badly torn party in which she has won esteem but few close friends. She will also have to juggle competing priorities in negotiating the withdrawal from the EU under the watchful eye of Brexit supporters who are wary of her commitment to their cause.

Even though she publicly if tepidly supported remaining in Europe out of loyalty to Mr Cameron, saying it would be best for the nation's security, at heart "she is a Eurosceptic", said Ms Catherine Meyer, a former treasurer of the Conservative Party and a friend of the Mays'. "When she says Brexit means out, she means it."

While respected within the EU as a tough and unpretentious negotiator, Mrs May will have to find the right balance between more controls on immigration that the voters demanded and at least partial access, if she can manage it, to the single market of the EU.

WOMEN IN POLITICS

Margaret Thatcher's election as prime minister in 1979 put Britain decades ahead of the United States and many other major nations in having a woman leader. But further progress towards gender equality in British politics since has been halting. Mr Cameron's inner circle was composed entirely of men, and the opposition Labour Party has never had a female leader.

There are signs, though, that the ascension of Mrs May is part of a broader shift. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being challenged by Ms Angela Eagle. Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is considered one of the country's best politicians. The Labour and Conservative leaders in Scotland are both women.

On Wednesday night, Mrs May named Amber Rudd to replace her as Home Office secretary.

Friends say that her early religious upbringing - she is an Anglican but went to a Roman Catholic school - has given Mrs May a moral base, a steady personality and a feeling for the disadvantaged.

"Her background has shaped her into somebody who is not going to feel sorry for herself or blame others for her mistakes, and who finds solace in moving forward, not to sit but to fight," said Ms Meyer, who worked with Mrs May on a charity for abducted children.

A young woman who hunched her shoulders at school to seem less tall has grown into a proud master of her responsibilities. She lives for her work and her husband, an investment banker, and their time together in their neat house in Sonning-on-Thames, in Berkshire, in the heart of her Maidenhead constituency, a village she shares with better-known types like the guitarist Jimmy Page and George and Amal Clooney.

She likes to cook, and owns more than 100 cookbooks, and will no doubt be glad the Camerons took the heat for remodelling the ancient kitchen at 10 Downing Street.

Mr Cameron valued her workaholic talents, naming her Home Office secretary, one of the four senior Cabinet posts, only the second woman to hold the job. Wary of her quiet ambition and wanting to protect his own favourite, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, he never promoted her further.

But he did not demote her, either, even as she failed to deliver on one of the government's key pledges, to curb immigration. Mrs May was famous for knowing her subject and keeping clear of the Cameron "chumocracy".

She is polite but not chummy, works late and does not hang around Parliament's bars. Her lack of a "set of friends" was considered one of her great liabilities in the race to succeed Mr Cameron, said Conservative Member of Parliament Crispin Blunt, who is one of her supporters.

"There wasn't an army of mates for her," he said, but it allows her to make appointments to her government on the basis of her own priorities and assessments."

"In government, sometimes it's difficult to be a woman surrounded by lots of men," said Ms Meyer. "Like Margaret Thatcher, she likes the company of men, but she's capable of putting her fist down."

And her head. When faced once with a civil servant who could not answer a direct question, Mrs May banged her head on the table. Asked about that during the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" programme in November 2014, Mrs May gave an embarrassed laugh and said that she didn't bang her head exactly, "but in despair I lent forward onto the desk, and someone said afterwards that only then they understood that I meant what I said".

Mrs May was co-founder in 2005 of a group called "Women2Win", to elect more women to Parliament and then nurture them, something that Mrs Thatcher was often criticised for not doing.

In office, Mrs May has been rigorous, largely sticking to her brief, which she knew in depth, and not often consulting Cabinet colleagues. Former minister Kenneth Clarke called her "a bloody difficult woman", a description she embraced.

She tends to work alone with her papers or with a small number of close aides, like Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, and has a tendency to micromanage, a senior civil servant said, asking not to be named.

After two failed attempts, she was elected to Parliament in 1997. In 2002, when chosen to chair the party, Mrs May gave a speech about the need to reach out to the less fortunate. "Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies," she said. "You know what some people call us? The nasty party. I know that's unfair, you know that's unfair, but it's the people out there that we have to convince."

In 2014, she again earned attention for taking on the powerful police union, the Police Federation, limiting "stop and search" because of racial bias and imposing elected oversight commissions on the police. To a stunned conference of police, she said: "The federation was created by an Act of Parliament and it can be reformed by An act of Parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you."

Among her most controversial acts was helping to push through a so-called "snooper's charter", giving the police and security services new powers in a world of digital communications and terrorism. After criticism that the measure impinged too much on civil liberties and individual rights, she agreed to some changes.

Mrs May has often been compared to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany - both daughters of Protestant clergymen, both with quiet, private husbands, both without children, both hardworking and rather distant. Mrs May clearly sees the similarities, including being underestimated by men.

"If you look at somebody like Angela Merkel and think of what she's actually achieved, you know, there are still people who don't rate her, are a bit dismissive, perhaps because of the way she looks and dresses," Mrs May said in a 2012 interview with the Daily Telegraph. "What matters is, what has she actually done? And, when you look at her abilities in terms of negotiation, and steering Germany through a difficult time, then hats off to her."

She has only rarely spoken publicly about her personal life, though it briefly became an issue when Mrs Angela Leadsom, one of her challengers for the party leadership, seemed to suggest that she had a greater stake in Britain's future because she has children and Mrs May does not.

"You look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don't have," Mrs May said in the 2012 interview with the Daily Telegraph, when asked about not having children. "You accept the hand life deals you." She took the same attitude to her diagnosis of diabetes, for which she said she gave herself four injections a day. "Just get on and deal with it."

Mrs May has made a calculated effort to show some inner life and spark by her choice of clothes, especially her kitten-heeled animal print shoes, which the British press chronicles avidly.

"You can be clever and like clothes," she has said. "One of the challenges for women in politics is to be ourselves."

When asked on Desert Island Discs what single novel she wanted as a castaway, she answered, Pride And Prejudice.

And her single luxury? "A lifetime subscription to Vogue."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'New British PM's style: Get on with it'. Print Edition | Subscribe