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Theresa May: Britain's New Iron Lady

Updated on August 7, 2016

Early Years

Theresa Mary May was born on October 1, 1956, in Eastbourne, Sussex. She was the only child of Zaidee Mary, a housewife and Hubert Brasier, a vicar for the Church of England who later became vicar of Enstone with Heythrop and finally of St Mary's at Wheatley, to the east of Oxford.

May initially attended Heythrop Primary School, a state-run primary school in Heythrop. She later briefly went to St. Juliana's Convent School for Girls in Begbroke, a Catholic independent school which later closed in 1984.

Later May managed to get a place at Holton Park Girls' Grammar School, a state-run secondary school in Wheatley. The school is now known as the Wheatley Park School, after the Oxfordshire education system was reorganized during May's time as a pupil there.

The young Theresa Brasier, as she was then, threw herself into village life, working in the bakery on Saturdays to earn pocket money and taking part in a pantomime that was produced by her father the vicar.

May didn't shy from speaking out about her ambition to be the first woman prime minister. Friends recall her being quite irritated when Margaret Thatcher achieved the position first.

Like Britain's first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, May went to Oxford University and, like so many others of her generation, found that her personal and political lives soon became closely intertwined. She managed to graduate with a second class BA degree in Geography in 1977. It was during this time she had met her future husband Phillip May who was then president of the Oxford Union. The two married in 1980.

Tall and fashion-conscious from a young age, May was not the strict figure she would later come to be seen as. Although there are no tales of drunken student revelry, friends said she had a sense of fun and a full social life.

May’s personal life was struck by tragedy just a year after. Her father died from head and spine injuries from a car crash in 1981. Only a few months later, her mother passed away due to multiple sclerosis. Being 25 at the time, May describes the year as a dreadful moment of her life, describing her husband as her "rock" who helped her overcome the tragedy. Their marriage to this day has lasted over 36 years. The couple have also been unsuccessful in conceiving any children, a fact that May admits deeply saddens her.

Eastbourne, Sussex, UK

Early Career

After graduation, May spent the next 20 years working in the financial sector. Heading out to the city, she started by working at the Bank of England between 1977 and 1983.

Later May went on to the Association for Payment Clearing Services, firstly as Head of the European affairs unit from 1989 to 1996 and then as Senior Adviser on international affairs from 1996 to 1997. But it was already clear that she saw her future in politics, ever setting her sights high.

Theresa has been involved in politics at all levels for many years. She started out stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative Association before going on to be a counselor in the London Borough of Merton from 1986 to 1994. During that time at Merton, May was Chair of Education from 1988 to 1990 and Deputy Group Leader and Housing Spokesperson from 1992 to 1994.

In the 1992 United Kingdom general election May stood for Parliament for the first time for the seat of North West Durham. Despite losing, her campaign was focused on maintaining the core vote in the then Labour Party dominated county. Two years later May stood again for Parliament at the 1994 Barking by-election following the death of its Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP). She lost again, standing at third place behind the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates respectively.

It was not until the 1997 general election which saw May successfully launch her political career after being elected as the Conservative MP for Maidenhead. May who through the years becomes a role model for aspiring female politicians, told prospective candidates before the 2015 election that "there is always a seat out there with your name on it". In her case like that of Margaret Thatcher - it only took her a bit of time to find hers.

Political Career

The Conservatives had a setback in 1997 with Tony Blair coming to power in a Labour Party landslide. However, there was a silver lining for Theresa May who won the seat of Maidenhead, a seat she has held ever since.

Since then, May has held many positions both in her party and in government. An early advocate of Conservative "modernization", she was in every single Shadow Cabinet from 1999 to 2010, holding several shadow positions, including:

- Shadow Spokesman for Schools, Disabled People and Women from 1998 to June 1999.
- Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment from 1999 to 2001.
- Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions from 2001 to 2002.
- Shadow Secretary of State for the Family from 2004 to 2005.
- Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 2005.
- Shadow Leader of the House of Commons from 2005 to 2009.
- Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities from 2010 to 2012.

May was appointed the first female Chairman of the Conservative Party in July 2002. At the 2002 Conservative Party Conference, she caused a stir when in her speech she explained why, in her view, her party must change: "you know what people call us: the Nasty Party" - all while wearing a pair of leopard-print kitten heel shoes that quickly became the most famous footwear in British politics.

On 6 May 2010, May was re-elected MP for Maidenhead with an increased majority of the vote. This followed an earlier failed attempt to unseat her in 2005 as one of the Liberal Democrats' leading "decapitation-strategy" targets.

Home Secretary

The United Kingdom’s (UK) 2010 general election failed to produce an overall majority for any of Britain's three main political parties, resulting in the first hung parliament in the UK in 36 years. A series of negotiations were made resulting in the formation of a Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government led by David Cameron as Prime Minister, marking the UK's first coalition government since the Second World War.

May was promoted Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality by David Cameron as part of his first Cabinet, making her the fourth woman ever to hold one of the British Great Offices of State, after (in order of seniority) Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary and Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary. The appointment also made her then the UK's most senior female politician.

The appointment to the job of home secretary came as something of a surprise given that another Conservative - Chris Grayling had previously been shadowing the position during their time as Opposition.

The Home Office was then and is still today an unforgiving department, with counter-terrorism, policing, crime and immigration the key areas of responsibility. It was a role which turned out to be the political graveyard of many secretaries of state, usually not lasting longer than a couple of years. May was the sixth holder of the post in six years. She would later hold the position for 6 years, the longest ever to hold the position in 60 years. A success attributed to what is said to be in her attention to detail and willingness to enter into battles with fellow ministers when she deemed it necessary.

Surveillance

In May’s first one hundred days as Home Secretary in 2010, she overturned several of the previous Labour Government's measures on data collection and surveillance. She introduced legislation to scrap Labour’s £4.5 billion national identity card scheme, citing that it would be the "first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people". By way of a Government Bill, she then brought about the abolition of the Labour Government's National Identity Card and database scheme and reformed the regulations on the retention of DNA samples for suspects and controls on the use of CCTV cameras.

The then Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism Charles Farr pushed for the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Bill, requiring internet and mobile service providers to keep records of internet usage, voice calls, messages and email for up to a year for crime investigation purposes - a move which May embraced fully. The Liberal Democrats managed to block the attempt, but May managed to implement a similar bill albeit with more limited powers and additional oversight after the Conservatives won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Immigration and Human Rights

May is probably best known and heavily criticized for her tough stance on immigration as Home Secretary, seen as performing numerous efforts to cut net migration numbers. Among them was to bar British citizens from bringing spouses and children into the UK unless they earn in excess of £18,600, a move accused by many as making family reunification a privilege for only the wealthy. May also in her passed a law requiring landlords to check on the immigration status of all prospective tenants for the purpose of getting rid of illegal immigrants. In her own words May cited the move was designed “to create a hostile environment” for illegal migrants, sparking the criticism and anger of many.

Among her final acts in Home Office was to introduce hefty new earnings thresholds for non-EU citizens who want to live in the country. Those living in the UK for less than 10 years now need to earn at least £35,000 a year if they want to settle in the country permanently, while exempting the rule for select occupations in health care.

In October 2012 Theresa May faced down the US government over the deportation of Gary McKinnon, a Scottish computer hacker who was accused in 2002 of hacking into several United States military and NASA computers. The Home Secretary prevented the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the US, saying it would contravene his human rights.

In April 2013, Theresa May sought and managed to remove supposed radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada from the UK. Abu Qatada, a Jordanian born Muslim had been living in the UK under the guise of an asylum seeker, claiming to have been wrongfully persecuted and tortured in Jordan. While in the UK, Abu Qatada was accused repeatedly of having links to terrorist organizations, and was frequently imprisoned under the country's anti-terrorism laws without formal charges. The European Court of Human Rights had initially barred his deportation from the UK owing to concerns he might face torture. After a treaty negotiated by May in April 2013 in which Jordan agreed to give him a fair trial to be refrained from torture, Abu Qatada was deported after an eleven years long battle that had cost the nation £1.7 million in legal fees.

It was during these times that shaped May's views on the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Theresa May had controversially hinted that she might move to withdraw Britain from the institution altogether, which she said bound the hands of the British Parliament from enforcing its own laws.

Police and crime

Shortly after appointed Home Secretary, May announced a package of reforms to policing in England and Wales. Police numbers were reduced through radical cuts to the Home Office budget. The previous Labour Government's central crime agency was also to be replaced by a new National Crime Agency, absorbing several agencies and assuming broader responsibilities. The media dubbed it the "British FBI".

In August 2011, people gathered in Tottenham, London to protest the police shooting of a local man, Mark Duggan. The protest then devolved into a city-wide spate of riots, looting, and arson, and for Theresa May and her Home Office - a national crisis. Appointed only a year earlier as home secretary, May faced criticism as the police struggled to quash the riots. May who was on holiday at the time returned home early to deal with the problem. She rejected calls for deployment of water cannons as not being the "way of the British police", though she utterly condemned the violence and gave full support to the Metropolitan Police in restoring order.

In May 2012, May faced a harsh crowd at the annual gathering of the Police Federation for failing to stop budget cuts. She was booed, laughed at, and told she had lost the trust of the police, amid claims that 20 per cent budget cuts and a shake-up of pay and conditions are putting officers and the public at risk. It was the worst treatment a Home Secretary has received in recent years at the hands of the Federation, with many even calling for her to quit. Two years later in 2014 she returned in uncompromising mode, listing the many failures of the police and announced she would cut funding to the Federation. The aggressive intervention was a striking departure from the old days when the Conservative party would hold back from criticizing the force. In her own words, May said that it was time for the police to "show the public that you get it".

Minister for Women and Equalities

Apart from Home Secretary Theresa May was also appointed Minister for Women and Equalities upon the formation of the coalition government in 2010, and held the position for over two years. The position was created back in 1997 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair as a means of prioritizing women's issues across government. May’s appointment came under criticism by a number of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) rights groups who seemed to see her as having staunch views against LGBT rights. Throughout her time in Opposition, May had voted against lowering the consent age and against greater adoption rights for homosexuals. She also had gone against the repeal of a law which banned councils from promoting homosexuality, though she had voted in favor of same-sex marriage.

Upon assuming the position however, May stated that she had changed her mind about gay couples adopting children. She also stated she would be supporting the previous Labour Government's Anti-Discrimination Laws despite having opposed it before. She did however announce that the government will drop Labour's proposed law requiring councils to tackle social deprivation, describing the clause as a "politically motivated target" which could have skewed public funding.

Brexit

In mid-2016, the United Kingdom went through one of its most historic and divisive periods ever. Membership of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors had long been a topic of debate in the nation. A significant amount of the population had been calling for a Britain withdrawal from the Union (dubbing their movement as "Brexit"), arguing that the EU has a democratic deficit and that being a member undermined national sovereignty. Aiming for a decisive win, Prime Minister David Cameron who supported to stay in the EU called for a national referendum to decide the matter.

The referendum resulted in a shocking overall vote to leave the EU by a small margin. Theresa May herself had supported remaining in the EU although she had been seen to be relatively quiet throughout the whole referendum debate.

Following the result, Cameron immediately announced his resignation as Prime Minister. Cameron who was also blamed as the one who wrongfully called for the referendum in the first place had no desire to continue his premiership seeing himself as not the person suitable to steer the nation in its exit from EU. He announced that he would resign the office of Prime Minister by the start of the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016.

Theresa May's First Speech as Prime Minister

Prime Minister

David Cameron's announcement of resignation signaled the leadership election for a new Conservative Party leader, an opportunity which Theresa May took to fulfill her dream. Including May, four other Conservative members of Parliament put themselves forward as candidates. Following two ballot rounds, May emerged from near the back of the pack of prime ministerial candidates to be the only person left standing.

The Conservative party board approved of May's win and subsequently she assumed the position of Conservative Party leader. On 13 July 2016, May accepted a request from Queen Elizabeth II to be Prime Minister. Thus on that day Theresa May became only the second female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after Margaret Thatcher, and the first female British Prime Minister of the 21st century.

On 13 July 2016, Theresa May delivered her inaugural speech at 10 Downing Street. Emphasizing the term "Unionist" in the name of the Conservative Party (its full title the Conservative and Unionist Party), May reminded all of "the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland." Two days later she flew to Edinburgh to meet Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for talks in reinforcing the bond between Scotland and the rest of the UK, a move which was deemed crucial due to calls in Scotland to have the country removed from the UK. The Scottish people were disappointed over the Brexit results, having voted mainly to stay in the EU.

In a controversial sweeping government reshuffle, May removed several prominent members, including six of Cameron's ministers. She also appointed several prominent advocates of Brexit to key cabinet positions including former Mayor of London Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary. May's moves were interpreted by the media as a radical shift to the right, and as an effort to reunite the Conservative Party post Brexit. May has insisted that her government will continue to implement the UK's exit from the EU, stating that "Brexit means Brexit".

How history will view Theresa May, it is still far too early to say. She has proved that she can run a big Government department, and a traditionally tricky one at that. But having inherited a divided United Kingdom post-Brexit, only time will tell what legacy she'll leave behind.

References

“Who is Theresa May: A profile of UK's new prime minister” By Gavin Stamp, BBC Political reporter, 25 July 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-36660372

“Together we will build a better Britain': New Tory leader Theresa May delivers vision for the country ahead of coronation as Prime Minister on Wednesday” By Michael Wilkinson, political correspondent and Leon Watson Barney Henderson. 11 JULY 2016 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/11/theresa-may-launches-conservative-leadership-bid-as-andrea-leads/

“Who is Theresa May? A profile of Britain's new Prime Minister” By Telegraph Reporter. 13 July 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/theresa-may-who-is-the-woman-bidding-to-be-the-next-tory-leader/

“Police Federation humiliates Theresa May by forcing her to make speech in front of 'criminal' banner” By Martin Beckford, Home Affairs Editor, in Bournemout. 16 May 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/9269542/Police-Federation-humiliates-Theresa-May-by-forcing-her-to-make-speech-in-front-of-criminal-banner.html

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      This is a terrific overview of Theresa May's rise to power. I admit to not knowing much about her until Cameron's resignation. I was struck by her opposition to the national ID card scheme on the grounds that killing it would be the "first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people" and then turning around and supporting the Investigatory Powers Bill, requiring that records of internet usage, voice calls, messages and email be kept for crime investigation purposes. Making Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary doesn't auger well, but, compared to our "conservative" choice in America, May comes off as a reasonable choice. Time will tell.