The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet Britain’s Theresa May on her way to 10 Downing Street

What you need to know about Britain's new PM, Theresa May, in 60 seconds (Video: Karla Adam, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

LONDON — The dizzying drama of British politics went into mad dash mode Monday. In the span of a few hours, plans for a summer-long leadership battle evaporated, Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would step down on Wednesday, and Theresa May found herself suddenly getting ready to take his place.

And the rest of the world, too, is left to quickly adjust to the quick switch at 10 Downing Street. That means a new face in major forums such as NATO and economic summits of industrial powers. In Brussels, the fast-pace political transition in Britain could also bring accelerated talks on the country's break from the European Union.

May is serious and cautious — some in Germany have likened her to Chancellor Angela Merkel — and says that a vote to leave the European Union means exactly that.

“Brexit means Brexit,” May said on Monday morning in a campaign speech in the race to become the second female British prime minister after Margaret Thatcher.

“We are going to make a success of it,” she told supporters in Birmingham. “There will be no attempts to remain inside the E.U.”

May has argued that she is the one to unify the country after Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation when his pro-E.U. side lost in last month's referendum.

“My pitch is simple: I’m Theresa May, and I think I’m the best person to be prime minister,” she has said.

She also surprised commentators on Monday by proposing ideas normally associated with the left-leaners in British politics, including having workers on the boards of major companies.

“This is a different kind of conservatism, I know. It marks a break with the past, but it is in fact completely consistent with conservative principles. Because we don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society. We don’t hate the state, we value the role that only the state can play.”

She has ruled out a second referendum, as well as a general election before 2020. She also said that under her leadership, Britain would not apply to leave the E.U. before the end of the year.

Michael Gove just turned British politics into an episode of ‘House of Cards’

“I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip over lunch. I don’t drink in Parliament’s bars. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me," she has said.

May is Britain’s long-serving home secretary, a portfolio under which she oversees the vexing issue of immigration. She is praised by some in her party for taking a tough stance on immigration and for introducing visa restrictions on non-E.U. immigrants in an attempt to drive down net migration. For instance, as of April, Americans and other non-Europeans living in Britain for more than five years have to earn 35,000 pounds, or about $47,000, if they want to stay.

She is also reviled by some on the left. Her critics were outraged over a speech she gave last year to the Conservative Party in which she suggested that immigration makes Britain a less cohesive society.

“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” she said.

Her critics have accused her of using E.U. nationals as "bargaining chips" in the talks to come with the European Union. She has implied that it would be wrong to give guarantees without getting similar ones for Britons living in the European Union. 

She once famously said that many voters saw the Conservative Party as the “nasty party.” When she launched her leadership bid, she praised Cameron for helping to detoxify the image of the party.

But while she was mostly full of praise for Cameron, she did say that she wouldn’t sign up for the current government’s plan to turn the budget deficit into a surplus by 2020. She said it was “vital” to continue along a similar path, but she added, “We should no longer seek to produce a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament."

The 59-year-old is the daughter of a Church of England clergyman and says that public service is “part of who I am.”

Read more:

Andrea Leadsom supporters in suits and ties just led Britain’s most awkward rally

The extraordinarily adolescent nature of British political breakups