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May, whose only remaining rival quit the race on Monday, will be Britain’s first woman prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.
She takes over the leadership of a country that has been plunged into turmoil since voters shocked the world by choosing to exit the European Union in a referendum on June 23.
“Never has there been such a difficult in-tray for an incoming prime minister – not since World War II,” said journalist and historian Peter Snowdon, a long-time observer of the Conservative Party, to which May belongs.
May, 59, officially backed the “Remain” camp during the referendum campaign but has made clear since then that the divorce must now go ahead, saying: “Brexit means Brexit.”
“There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door, and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union and as Prime Minister I will make sure that we leave the European Union,” she said during a speech on Monday.
But she has also said Britain should not trigger the exit proceedings until London is ready to start negotiations.
Invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty would begin those talks but lawyers and politicians differ over who has the authority to trigger the clause and whether it is irreversible.
“There should be no decision to invoke Article 50 until the British negotiating strategy is agreed and clear — which means Article 50 should not be invoked before the end of this year,” May, 59, said late last month when she launched her campaign to succeed Cameron.
That potentially puts her on a collision course with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders who have urged the UK to move quickly in order to preempt further instability in the wake of the shocking Brexit vote.
No ‘cherry picking’
May and her team of negotiators will face the enormous task of disentangling Britain from a forest of EU laws, accumulated over more than four decades, and negotiating new trade terms while limiting potential damage to the economy.
Article 50 envisages a period of up to two years to negotiate an amicable separation.
Triggering it quickly might weaken London’s hand in negotiations on the terms of its break with the EU but any delay could add to uncertainty for investors wondering how the future relationship with the EU will look.
The incoming PM has said she plans to appoint a minister for Brexit and that a priority will be to win the right for British companies to trade with the EU’s single market in goods and services after it leaves the bloc, though freedom of movement will have to be curbed.
“The Brexit vote was also a message that we need to bring control to free movement. Free movement cannot continue as it has up to now,” she said on Monday.
But Merkel has made it clear there can be no “cherry picking” of what the UK wants to keep from its EU membership while jettisoning aspects of the relationship that it does not like.
“We will have difficult negotiations with Britain, it will not be easy,” Merkel told conservative supporters in eastern Germany on Monday.
The EU wants Britain to commit to leaving by early 2019 and has said there can be no negotiation before Article 50 is triggered. It has no clear legal power to hold Britain to an exit schedule but has some levers against disruptive members.
May’s supporters say she has steely determination, pays attention to detail and focuses on getting on with the job at hand.
She has served for the past six years as home secretary, or interior minister, regarded as one of the toughest jobs in government, and cultivated a reputation as a tough and competent pragmatist. Her cautious, low-key style has seen her likened to Merkel.
May entered parliament in 1997 and became the Conservative Party’s first female chairman in 2002, when it was not in power. She told its annual conference that year that people saw it as “the nasty party” and that it should overhaul its image.
Colleagues say she shuns the old boys club traditions of parliament, preferring to spend any free time she has with her husband of 36 years, Philip.
“I know I’m not a showy politician,” she said when she launched her leadership bid after Cameron said he was stepping down following the vote for Brexit.
“I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
That job now includes uniting a fractured party and a nation in which many, on the evidence of the referendum, feel angry with the political elite and left behind by the forces of globalisation and economic change.
It will also require swift action to stave off the economic fallout of Brexit, amid warnings from investors that the UK will slip back into recession next year due to a decline in foreign investment.
Holding on to Scotland
May’s rise to the PM job has been broadly welcomed by jittery markets craving some form of stability since the June 23 referendum.
“It avoids a two-month-long leadership campaign and lifts one source of uncertainty in the UK,” said Daniel Vernazza, the lead UK economist for UniCredit, noting that May’s hardline rival Andrea Leasdom would have “risked splitting the Conservative Party and [triggering] an early general election”.
Among May’s first duties will be naming a new cabinet that includes some of those who campaigned successfully on the opposite side of the referendum.
She also made a pitch for the political centre ground, calling for “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few”.
She promised to prioritise more house-building, a crackdown on tax evasion by individuals and companies, lower energy costs and a narrowing of the “unhealthy” gap between the pay of corporate bosses and their employees.
“Under my leadership, the Conservative Party will put itself completely, absolutely, unequivocally, at the service of ordinary working people,” she said. “We will make Britain a country that works for everyone.”
But keeping it together as one country will itself prove a challenge, said journalist Peter Snowdon.
“The issue of the union itself between England and Scotland is at stake,” he warned, referring to Scottish threats of another referendum on independence should the UK drag Europhile Scots out of the EU.