Theresa May: meet the UK’s new prime minister

Moving in: May has already appointed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.

Britain has its 76th prime minister — and for only the second time, she is a woman. She has an image as an earnest politician with a grasp of detail. Is she the leader the country needs?

Shortly before 5:30pm yesterday, Theresa May entered Buckingham Palace. The Queen asked her to form a government, and she was driven to 10 Downing Street in the prime ministerial Jaguar.

There, she told the country she wanted to fight injustices and lead Britain as it forged a ‘bold, new, positive role’. The candidate who won support from across her party during the recent leadership election stressed the value of ‘the union between all of our citizens’.

She has long been interested in her new job. Her university friend Pat Frankland says ‘she wanted to become the first woman prime minister — and was quite irritated when Margaret Thatcher got there first.’

At the age of 59, she is now much readier: she was the longest serving home secretary in modern times and has held five shadow ministerial jobs. She has drawn comparisons with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. Even her former shadow Yvette Cooper calls her ‘authoritative’ and ‘steady’.

Her striking words in Downing Street surprised those who saw her as rather cold. But May is a woman of contradictions. She became a Conservative MP on her party’s worst night in living memory. She has adopted tough language on immigration, but coined the phrase ‘the nasty party’ and campaigned for a Remain vote in the EU referendum.

Her conservatism is rooted in her upbringing. She grew up as a vicar’s daughter in an Oxfordshire village, where she took part in pantomimes and worked in a bakery to earn pocket money. And her personal life has been touched by tragedy: she lost both her parents at a young age and recently revealed she had type 1 diabetes.

But the rapid handover has given the public little chance to scrutinise her policy platform. Cooper warns that ‘she hides when things go wrong’ while her critics accuse her of stubbornness. During her time as home secretary she had a tense relationship with the police. And she now faces a tough job, with Brexit likely to dominate government business for the foreseeable future.

Is the UK in safe hands?

May the force be with you

Yes, say May’s supporters. She is the woman for the moment — a serious, well-qualified, experienced individual. The country should not expect silly gestures or frivolous photo shoots. She has been tested both personally and politically, and she is the right person for this momentous period in British history.

That is too optimistic, warn others. May inherits the almost impossible job of withdrawing from the EU, uniting a divided country and keeping the United Kingdom together. In her career so far she has often been inconsistent, indecisive and unpopular, and she has not faced the scrutiny of a party leadership campaign. Do not expect miracles.

You Decide

  1. Do you support Theresa May?
  2. Is the UK now in safe hands?

Activities

  1. Write down five things you would like to know about the UK’s new prime minister. Discuss as a class: why are they important?
  2. Write a one-page letter to Theresa May, explaining what you think her three biggest priorities should be and why.

Some People Say...

“Nothing can possibly prepare you to lead an entire country.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So one politician leaves his job, and another one starts. What difference does it make?
The government Theresa May leads will set an agenda which will affect the lives of everyone in the country — and probably many abroad, too. They will decide tax and spending policy and what deals to do with other countries — all these things will affect how well off you are. They will also reflect the country’s values on your behalf — if you are British.
But does her background matter?
May’s background can help us to understand what motivates her and whether her priorities will match yours. She appears to believe in hard work and ‘one nation’ values — maintaining traditional structures which have worked before but encouraging people in society to recognise their responsibilities to each other.

Word Watch

University
May went to a grammar school, which became a comprehensive while she was there; she then studied geography at Oxford.
Home secretary
The job is widely seen as one of the hardest in Westminster. May’s fellow minister David Laws recently said he ‘didn’t expect her to last more than a couple of years’ when she began. But she was in the post for more than six years.
Shadow
Cooper was May’s equivalent in the Labour party from 2011 to 2015.
Night
General election night in 1997, when the Conservatives won just 165 seats and lost power.
Nasty party
May used this phrase in a speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2002, after two heavy general election losses.
Young
Both died in 1981 within a few months of each other, when May was 24 and 25.
Diabetes
A chronic condition that causes a patient’s blood sugar level to become too high. May has to inject insulin twice a day.
Police
May adopted a confrontational style with the Police Federation, drawing both praise and criticism. One Police and Crime Commissioner declared her ‘the single most damaging thing’ to police morale.