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Is she up for the top job? In short, yes, but she’s no miracle worker either, analysts say.
“The United Kingdom is in appallingly weak negotiating position at the moment,” politics professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University in London said regarding one of the biggest challenges facing May, working out the terms of the country’s withdrawal from the EU. “Even if she has the will, there’s no guarantee she will convince 27 countries to get what she wants.”
Theresa Mary Brasier was born Oct. 1, 1956, in the Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne. The only child of the Rev. Hubert Brasier and Zaidee Brasier, she was raised in the Anglican Church.
“I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major,” May said in her party leadership launch statement. “Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.”
May and her husband, Philip May, a fund manager in London, have a house in the town of Sonning-on-Thames in Berkshire, where notable residents include George and Amal Clooney.
It was during a Conservative Association dance at Oxford University, where she studied geography, that young Theresa met her future husband. She has described him as her “rock,” especially after both her parents died.
Theresa May started her career working for the Bank of England and subsequently became a local council member. She does not have children.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and has since needed daily insulin injections. She will be the first major world leader with the disease, at least publicly acknowledged.
While May was Britain’s longest-serving home secretary (interior minister) in 50 years, she is a private person who is not widely known.
“I know I’m not a showy politician,” she said in her leadership statement. “I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
May was elected the member of Parliament for Maidenhead in 1997. She has held several parliamentary positions and was the first woman to chair the Conservative Party, in 2002, famously telling her peers they had to change their ways in order to stop being seen as “the nasty party.”
“I think she will be a great prime minister because she is methodological, calm, studious and doesn’t rush to the press,” Catherine Meyer, the wife of a former U.S. ambassador to the U.K. and a friend of May’s, told ABC News in a phone interview.
“The first time I met her, I was intimidated. She’s tall and self-confident,” Meyer said, recalling their introduction 12 years ago. “But she’s a normal girl in private who likes cooking and enjoys talking about her holidays and about clothes.”
British newspapers have often pictured and mentioned May’s leopard-print kitten heels since she first wore her now signature shoes at a Conservative conference in 2002.
“It’s her way of saying that, yes, she’s serious but she also has a fun, frivolous side,” Meyer said.
As for comparisons to the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, they have similarities, but they also differ.
“She’s far less ideological than Thatcher, far less of a warrior, more pragmatic, centrist, not a neoliberal fundamentalist,” Bale said. “But she’s also made it through the ranks in a still male-dominated party, and that’s a major achievement that shouldn’t be downplayed.”
May is more of a feminist than Thatcher ever was, and she is widely expected to promote women in the party and in government, observers say.
She is seen as a hard-liner on issues such as immigration and security, but she has also expressed more centrist views. In her leadership speech, she said, “The Conservative Party will put itself — completely, absolutely, unequivocally — at the service of working people.”
Paul Goodman of the popular blog ConservativeHome said he believes the task confronting her as prime minister will be “bigger than that which faced Margaret Thatcher in 1979, almost as great as that which faced [Clement] Attlee in 1945 — or Churchill six years earlier.”
“Her Tory critics believe that she simply isn’t up to the task: They portray her as a timid bureaucrat, unwilling to delegate, imprisoned by conventional thinking, politically correct,” Goodman wrote, adding that he disagrees and praised her as “a classic public servant.”
May’s capacity to unite the party has brought her credibility and support. She will now be in charge of leading the Brexit negotiations, even though she voted for the U.K. to remain in the European Union.
Aiming to quickly put and end to suspicions that she would defy the result of the vote, May said after the final count, “Brexit means Brexit. The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”
Even many in the “leave” camp have rallied behind her.
“She’ll be healer,” Conservative MP Robert Halfon told ABC News. “She’ll be like [Richard] Nixon in China. She voted ‘remain,’ but she’ll do what’s needed. She’ll appoint a top Brexit member, and she’ll do it.
Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage said in a statement, “I hope she picks a strong negotiating team. UKIP [his former party] will be watching like a hawk to ensure that there is no backsliding.”
Bale said uniting the party and the country is “the No. 1 criterion in this country, for party members and voters. They are less worried about charisma and personality than track record.”
He suspects, however, that her ability to unite the party could diminish if the economy tanks and that a general election could be in the cards, but May has rejected holding elections before 2020, when they are next due.
Despite the challenges ahead, May is seen as a safe pair of hands and has promised to steer Britain through “political and economic uncertainty.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama “and his successor will be able to coordinate effectively with her to not just protect but even advance the special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K.