LONDON—When Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 she was seen as a shrill housewife nowhere near ready to lead the country. She even joked with the crowd at her first party conference by pretending to do a little housework on stage.
The Iron Lady was born later.
On Thursday, Theresa May will be installed as leader of the Conservative party and Britain’s second female prime minister already forged in steel.
For six years she has run Britain’s security, law enforcement and border control agencies without a major public slip up. The role of Home Secretary—which almost universally ends in scandal or humiliation—is so tough that it has become a notorious political graveyard. May is the longest serving Home Secretary for more than half a century.
She became famous for her unflinching approach to foreign relations—she refused to American requests to extradite a British hacker with Asperger’s but booted hook-handed radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza out of the country despite his human rights appeals.
A senior security source told The Daily Beast that her track-record was even more impressive as the public is totally unaware of most of the great work she has accomplished. “She has thwarted more terror plots than you will ever know,” he said.
With Britain plunged into its greatest political crisis since the Second World War by David Cameron’s Brexit gamble, May was able to obliterate her Conservative rivals in the race to succeed him.
Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom all lacked the gravitas and experience to calm the financial markets and help steer Britain through a series of negotiations that will remake its relations with Europe and the world outside the European Union in the coming years.
Speaking to the press outside the House of Commons on Monday after Leadsom, her last remaining rival pulled out of the race, she was happy to admit that she had won because she was seen as a safe pair of hands. “[My campaign was about] the need for strong, proven leadership to steer us through what will be difficult and uncertain economic and political times, the need, of course, to negotiate the best deal for Britain in leaving the EU, and to forge a new role for ourselves in the world. Brexit means Brexit, and we are going to make a success of it,” she said.
It was hardly the kind of stirring historical quote recited by Margaret Thatcher when she was made prime minister. May is practical to the last.
Cameron’s tribute was the same. “She is strong, she is competent,” he said.
Like being prime minister, the role of Home Secretary means being confronted by a constant stream of decisions to make. Many involving security assessments and the potential loss of life. A Home Office official told The Daily Beast that she had proven to be a superb decision-maker. No matter what advice she’s getting, she never seems to get it wrong, he said.
In an unguarded conversation that was caught on camera last week, Ken Clarke, one of the Conservative Party’s most senior politicians, described May as a “bloody difficult woman.”
Her unflinching response says much about her style of politics. “Ken Clarke might have found me to be a 'bloody difficult woman'. The next person to find that out will be [President of the European Commission] Jean-Claude Juncker,” she said.
This wasn’t her first run-in with Clarke, who was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government. She has carefully cultivated a reputation for cracking down on criminals and attempting to limit civil liberties if they interfere with counter-terror strategy.
Clarke, who was Justice Secretary, has a somewhat more liberal approach. She told him: "I lock them up, you let them out.”
May had little choice but to throw red meat to the party base after a controversial speech made in 2002 when she was Conservative chairwoman. She chose to aggressively attack her own party which had lost consecutive elections to Tony Blair’s Labour. “Twice we went to the country unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive…twice we got slaughtered,” she said, describing her own party as the “nasty party.”
The name stuck, and May’s popularity inside the party plunged.
It was the first example of what would become a recurring theme; taking on the vested interests on her own side.
As Home Secretary—overseeing law enforcement—one of her most high-profile engagements was a speech to the Police Federation, which should be a natural ally. In 2014, she tore them apart: “I am here to tell you that it's time to face up to reality," she said.
The hall, which had booed her for failing to stave off cuts two years earlier, was stunned into silence. “There was almost a wildness about her,” Ian Pointon, chairman of the Kent Police Federation later told the Financial Times.
May is likely to form a remarkable trio of formidable world leaders with Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, but they should beware. She’s not afraid to stand up to her own.