Theresa May Britain's New Iron Lady

It's likely that Theresa May, Britain's interior minister, will soon become prime minister. Comparisons are already being drawn with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but is that good or bad news for post-Brexit Europe?
Theresa May is likely to be the new resident of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British prime minister.

Theresa May… but then again, she may not.

That was the joke making the rounds in London last week as Britain's powerful interior minister prevaricated over whether to join the race to be the country's next prime minister. But a few days on, and it is Ms. May who’s having the last laugh.

The Conservative Party’s leading female ultimately made a decisive entry into the party’s leadership contest, a race triggered by the post-Brexit vote resignation of David Cameron. And the sure-footed move is already paying off.

In the first-round ballot of party lawmakers on Tuesday, the former banker emerged as the runaway favorite, securing more than half of the votes in a five-way contest. A YouGov poll on Monday showed that she has enormous support among the party's grassroots, who will be the final arbiters of victory. The winner, to be declared in September, will become prime minister.

With Margaret Thatcher having already set the bar for steely, determined female leadership, Ms. May’s bid for the top job raised few eyebrows at home. But her candidacy came as more of a surprise outside of Britain in the European Union.

One shouldn’t assume that there will be some sort of special relationship. Quentin Peel, Chatham House fellow and Journalist

The new prime minister will likely be spending a lot of time negotiating Britain’s departure from the bloc with E.U. politicians and officials, and great interest is being taken in Ms. May’s policy positions. In addition, inevitable comparisons are being made with Europe’s most powerful woman: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. So who is Theresa May?

The 59-year-old is Britain’s longest-serving interior minister, having been in post since Mr. Cameron’s first government came to power in 2010. Once written off as “dull and boring” by a cabinet colleague, she has developed a reputation as a pragmatic yet tough deal maker. She famously silenced Britain’s uppity, male-dominated Police Federation, the U.K. law enforcement lobby group, with a single speech in May 2014. Police reform followed.

The liberal Conservative has notched up several other policy successes. Her move to introduce minimum salary requirements for non-E.U. migrants won her support from immigration hardliners, and her decision to deport Jordanian hate preacher Abu Qatada showed her to be tough on terror. A low-profile Remain supporter during the referendum campaign, she managed to duck criticism about immigration, which was her responsibility as interior minister, and became the Brexit vote’s most contentious issue.

At the same time, she has been a vocal advocate of gender equality and women’s rights. She famously kick-started the Conservatives rebranding after labeling them the “nasty party” in 2002.

Less popular have been her attempts to give security services the power to track citizens’ web activities, and several backlogs at Britain’s passport office.

With the Conservative Party in an uproar after Mr. Cameron's resignation following the Brexit vote, Ms. May has run as a unity candidate in the party's leadership race. She has been seen as a euroskeptic, but the party faithful have accepted her decision to campaign quietly and pragmatically for Britain to stay in the European Union.

But she knows how to seize the moment. After the Brexit vote, she moved quickly to shore up support within the Conservative party, announcing on June 30 that, despite her Remain sympathies, she was committed to carrying out the Brexit decision as the new Tory leader.

“The country voted to leave the European Union, and it is the duty of the government and of parliament to make sure we do just that,” she said at the time, while keeping mum on when she would begin the process.

If and when she does, her counterpart in Berlin is likely to be one of the first to know.

The similarities between Ms. May and Ms. Merkel are striking. Both are the daughters of clerics; both had humble upbringings; both rose to prominence on merit, not privilege; both are regarded as tough, pragmatic but compassionate conservatives; both are married and childless; and neither are known for their small talk, humor or glamor.

In short, they have a reputation for getting things done with little fanfare.

“These are both women who have got where they are by being quite mistrustful to win in a male-dominated political world,” said Quentin Peel, an associate fellow of the Chatham House think tank in London and the former international affairs editor at The Financial Times. “But one shouldn’t assume that there will be some sort of special relationship.”


Will Angela Merkel be pleased to see Theresa May in Downing Street?


So would the pro-E.U. chancellor and Brexit engineer get on?

The pair have not met, but there are signs the Briton will be able to build on Mr. Cameron’s warm and effective relationship with the German leader.

First, Ms. May has a track record on European issues. She advocated for Britain to remain within the European Union and played a leading role in pushing for reforms from within.

In 2014, she wrote in a newspaper article: “If we can make Europe work differently – if we can work towards a more flexible union of sovereign member states who use treaties and institutions to trade freely and co-operate in the fight against crime and terrorism – it will surely be in our national interest to remain members of the European Union.”

She demonstrated this to good effect two years ago when she reversed Britain’s decision to opt out of dozens of E.U. justice and home affairs protocols, including agreeing to the controversial European Arrest Warrant. This allows citizens from one E.U. country to be extradited to another on relatively minor charges and had incensed Conservatives. But Ms. May said the increased security she secured in return outweighed the loss of sovereignty.

And last week, post-Brexit realism led her to announce she would drop the government’s plans to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, a list of basic rights of all E.U. citizens.

Ms. May’s eagerness for reform rings true with what are thought to be Ms. Merkel’s private views on the European project, offering the prospect of crucial common ground. In addition, her pragmatism has earned the respect of E.U. officials. Both will be more comfortable dealing with Ms. May than her pro-Brexit leadership rivals, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom.

“Neither May nor Merkel is ideological; they’re both potentially quite pragmatic, so they might hit it off,” Mr. Peel said.

At the same time, Ms. May is committed to abiding by the will of the British majority and taking the country out of the E.U.

Her commitment that “Brexit means Brexit” has reassured euroskeptics in her own party, and proved to Ms. Merkel and the European Union that she is serious about taking the country out of the bloc. This will strengthen her hand in negotiations, and ease uncertainty in the E.U.

“Theresa May can bridge two almost unbridgeable positions between the Leave and Remain camps. That gives her tremendous political capital,” said Richard Whitman, the head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a fellow at the European Policy Centre think tank.

Ms. May also knows how to compromise.

In her speech launching her leadership campaign, she said the Leave vote had more to do with anger over immigration than anti-European sentiment or loss of trade or sovereignty, hinting at areas that might offer room for maneuver in the Brexit negotiations.

“Theresa May has shown the capacity to do a U-turn, for example on withdrawing from the ECHR,” Mr. Peel said.

Mr. Whitman agreed. There will have to be some horse trading, he said, between Britain wanting to maintain access to the single market and the E.U.’s unwillingness to limit freedom of movement. “There’s going to have to be a compromise, probably on a significantly reduced U.K. budget contribution to the E.U.,” he says.

Some are hoping that if she is elected, Ms. May will help usher in a new era of female leadership in Europe through her role as a key Brexit architect.

Baroness Karren Brady, a leading British executive, wrote in a newspaper article last week that she thinks discussions between Ms. May and Ms. Merkel will be “less combative” than between two men. “Generally speaking, the women I know in politics are more interested in doing the right things for the right reasons,” she wrote.

But even if Ms. May becomes prime minister, it is by no means certain her dealings with Ms. Merkel will be smooth.

Mr. Peel thinks Ms. May may not have the consensus-building skills of the German leader.

"One of Merkel’s great skills is to bring everyone round the table and make sure nobody leaves the room feeling they’ve been screwed," he said. "I’m not sure Theresa May has that skill."

Ultimately though, it could be what unites them rather than what divides them that proves a source of friction. “Maybe their personality types will be just too similar,” Prof. Whitman said.


David Reay is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]