LONDON: Britain’s tough-talking interior minister Theresa May has avoided the Conservative party in-fighting that dominated the EU referendum campaign, making her a strong contender to replace David Cameron as premier.
May is the current favourite against junior energy minister Andrea Leadsom, who is virtually unknown to the wider public, and has emphasised her experience and her capacity to bring the party together.
Although a long-standing eurosceptic and hardliner on immigration, May declared herself officially in favour of Britain staying in the European Union — but kept a low profile during the divisive campaign.
The 59-year-old trod a fine line between remaining loyal to Cameron and the “Remain” campaign, while appeasing Conservative Party members who wanted to quit the EU and clamp down on immigration.
“Following last week’s referendum, our country needs strong leadership to steer us through this period of economic and political uncertainty,” May said in launching her bid last week.
“We need a bold, new positive vision for the future of our country,” said May, while stressing there was no going back on the vote to leave the European Union.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she said, adding that she does not plan to invoke Article 50 — the formal procedure for leaving — before the end of the year.
Many Conservative lawmakers agree.
She received 199 of the 329 votes cast in a ballot by Conservative MPs on Thursday, far ahead of the 84 for Leadsom and the choice will now be up to Conservative Party members.
Many of the party’s MPs and ministers think only May can unite warring party factions after Britain voted by 52 percent in favour of leaving the EU.
May’s stern demeanour and wardrobe of austere suits have drawn comparisons to party heroine Margaret Thatcher.
In some unguarded comments broadcast by Sky News, senior Conservative MP Ken Clarke was caught speaking to a former cabinet colleague about May.
“Theresa’s a bloody difficult woman but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher,” a rumpled and pink-faced Clarke said.
“I get on all right with her and she is good. She’s too narrow on her department…. She doesn’t know much about foreign affairs,” he added.
Britain’s media have long salivated over her extensive footwear collection — not least since she wore leopard-print kitten heels at the Tory party conference in 2002.
In a television interview on Sunday, she has also revealed she owns more than 100 cook books.
After studying geography at Oxford University and working briefly in the Bank of England, May’s political career began when she was elected a councillor in London in 1986.
She became an MP in 1997 and the Conservative party’s first chairwoman in 2002, breaking a long male tradition. While in opposition, May held various shadow cabinet positions.
Cameron, the fourth party leader she has served under, promoted May to home secretary following his 2010 election victory, a role she kept after his re-election in 2015.
Over her six years in the role, May has built a reputation for taking a firm line on Islamic preachers and also came out in support of gay marriage.
May says she will “strive to make Britain a country that works for everyone — regardless of who they are and regardless of where they’re from.”
She has been married to banker Philip May since 1980, and the couple have no children. May lists her hobbies as walking and cooking.