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In Thatcher's footsteps: Theresa May, Britain's Brexit PM

Monday, July 11, 2016 - 23:15

[LONDON] Britain's prime minister in waiting Theresa May is a pragmatist who has emerged from the chaos of the Brexit referendum unscarred, portraying herself as the one who will lead the country out of the EU.

The country's second female leader after fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher, Ms May was officially - but unenthusiastically - in favour of Britain staying in the European Union.

She kept a low profile throughout the campaign, and when the June 23 referendum delivered a shock "Leave" result, stepped into the political vacuum left by David Cameron's decision to quit.

She insists "Brexit means Brexit" but has said she would not trigger the formal process for Britain leaving the EU before year's end at the earliest until a negotiating strategy is clear.

Although Ms May trounced her rivals for the premiership, she faces an uphill struggle to unite a country and a party deeply split by the referendum.

She has been labelled, in an unguarded moment, a "bloody difficult woman" by senior Conservative Kenneth Clarke.

But the 59-year-old claims this is the very quality which will stand her in good stead for the battles ahead.

"The next person to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker," she reportedly told MPs, referring to Brexit negotiations with the European Commission president.

Ms May was born Theresa Brasier in the southern English seaside town of Eastbourne in 1956.

Her father Hubert was an Anglican clergyman, one of several points which has drawn comparisons between her and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Her education - at a series of little known state and private schools - has been contrasted with the elite Etonian background of Mr Cameron and many in his "Notting Hill Set" circle.

Like Mr Cameron, she attended Oxford University but kept a low profile. It was here that she met her husband Philip, a banker - they were reportedly introduced by Benazir Bhutto, later assassinated as Pakistani premier.

The couple married in 1980 but were unable to have children. Ms May's rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the leadership race two days after comments were published suggesting this made her less qualified to be prime minister.

Ms May worked in finance, including at the Bank of England, before being elected as MP for the London commuter town of Maidenhead in 1997.

As Conservative chairwoman in 2002, she made waves by suggesting the Tories were seen as "the nasty party" and needed to overhaul their image - although under Mr Cameron's leadership, they did so.

When the Conservatives won the 2010 general election, Ms May was named home secretary, the hardest job in government which has wrecked a string of other political careers.

But Ms May has kept the job for six years - the longest serving interior minister since 1892.

Supporters say her achievements include deporting radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan - where he was later freed after a decade of legal cases - and standing up to the Police Federation, the powerful police officers union, to try and address a string of scandals.

In 2013, Ms May revealed she has type 1 diabetes but insisted it would not affect her career, saying it was a question of "head down and getting on with it".

While widely respected, she is not part of any clique at Westminster, acknowledging that she does not drink in parliament's many bars or "gossip about people over lunch".

Instead, a source who has worked closely with her told AFP on condition of anonymity she was "incredibly hard-working".

"She's always got up three hours before everybody else and knows five times more than anyone else in the room," the source added.

"Theresa is not going to do anything radical... she's incredibly risk-averse, a safe pair of hands."

Ms May has little time for hobbies but is well known for her collection of leopard-print shoes and enjoys cooking and taking walking holidays with her husband.

AFP