LONDON — As the race to become Britain’s next prime minister narrowed, a veteran member of the Conservative Party’s old boys’ club characterized contender Theresa May as a “bloody difficult woman.”
Kenneth Clarke didn’t know that his comments, made before a television interview, were being recorded, but he didn’t back away from them once they were made public. Neither did May.
“Ken Clarke says I am a bloody difficult woman. The next man to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker,” the next prime minister of Britain told her colleagues last week, referring to the president of the European Commission, with whom May will negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper favored by Tory supporters, agreed that a “bloody difficult woman” is just what Britain needs right now. “We have had one running the country before; we need another now,” it wrote in an editorial, referring to the original “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher.
For only the second time in its history, Britain will have a female prime minister, now that May will succeed David Cameron, who said he will step down Wednesday in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote last month in favor of a Brexit.
Ironically, it was the suggestion that May was not enough of a woman that led to her victory. Andrea Leadsom, May’s rival for the leadership post, suffered a self-inflicted wound after suggesting that she would make a better prime minister because she had children and, therefore, a bigger stake in the country’s future, whereas May did not. May has previously said that she and her husband were not able to have children, something she regretted.
Leadsom, under heavy criticism for the remark, withdrew from the race Monday, paving the way for May to be named leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister of Britain.
May, 59, prides herself on just getting on with the job.
“My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking,” she told the Telegraph in an interview published Friday, saying she had always championed women in politics. “We just get stuck in. Politics isn’t a game. The decisions we make affect people’s lives, and that is something we must all keep to the forefront of our minds.”
She did not campaign in favor of Britain leaving the E.U. — analysts note that she was clever in hedging her bets, perhaps with an eye on making a play for the leadership position either way — but she will now get on with the task of implementing the Brexit.
“The British people have spoken, and there will be a different future for the U.K., different but a brighter, more optimistic future,” she said. “We may have to go through some difficult times to get there, but get there we will.”
Just a month ago, few could have imagined this outcome. May was far down the succession list in the Tory party, behind Boris Johnson, a loquacious former mayor of London and one of the strongest proponents of a Brexit, and George Osborne, the finance minister and a Brexit opponent.
May, who has been home secretary for six years and has earned a reputation for being tough on immigration and other controversial domestic issues such as policing, was third or fourth on the list.
But with Johnson and rival Michael Gove flaming out and stalwarts in the “remain” camp, such as Osborne, declining to run, May suddenly emerged as the favorite. Because she is the sole remaining candidate, she will become the leader without having been elected by the party or the public.
May has ruled out calling an early election, meaning she could hold the post until 2020.
Theresa Mary May was born in 1956 in Sussex, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. After graduating from the University of Oxford, she worked at the central bank and then as a financial consultant until she was elected to Parliament in 1997. She has been married for 36 years to a banker she met at a Conservative Party dance.
A serious and pragmatic politician, May has often been called boring or dull and is sometimes compared to Germany’s Angela Merkel.
But she is well known for being passionate about one thing: quirky shoes.
The leopard-print pumps she wore to address the Conservative Party conference in 2002 — after becoming the first female chairman of the party — caused almost as many ripples as her words. She told the stunned conference that some people call the Tories “the nasty party” partly because it excluded women and minorities.
Now May will preside over the party during a period of great turmoil.
Tim Bale, an author of books on the Conservative Party, described May as “dead center” of the party but added, “I think she might come into her own and to some extent surprise us when she becomes prime minister.”
Iain Dale, an influential conservative blogger, said she will be very different from Cameron. “She is conservative rather than a Conservative, by which I mean she is wary of dramatic change rather than holding socially conservative views,” Dale wrote. “. . . She will test a case to destruction before embarking on radical change.”
After three weeks of upheaval, that could be just what Britain needs, said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“She’s been in Parliament for almost 20 years, and she’s held a number of senior jobs. Given the extraordinary degree of political turmoil facing Britain right now, she offers stability and a reliable pair of hands,” Travers said, betting that many in the opposition Labour Party would privately agree.
Still, May has made clear that she will press ahead with Britain’s exit from the E.U., a process that will involve radical change, however it is carried out.
Karla Adam contributed to this report.