'Goody-two-shoes' moves into No 10

Described as a safe pair of hands and a woman with ‘no wild side’, Theresa May is where the buck now stops for the UK.
In a world where political reputations can be shredded in an instant, May is the ultimate political survivor. Photo / AP
In a world where political reputations can be shredded in an instant, May is the ultimate political survivor. Photo / AP

Theresa May has moved into 10 Downing St to become the UK's second female prime minister, taking charge at one of the most turbulent times in recent political history.

The 59-year-old former Home Secretary's carefully cultivated image of political dependability and unflappability appears to have made her the right person at the right time as the fallout from the Britain's vote to leave the EU smashed possible rivals out of contention.

Long known to have nurtured leadership hopes, May - whose friends recall her early ambition to be the UK's first female PM - could have reasonably expected to have had to wait until at least 2018 to have a shot at Downing St.

But the EU referendum, which David Cameron called and lost - the year after leading the party to its first election win in 23 years - turned political certainties on their head and, as other candidates fell by the wayside after the PM's own resignation, May emerged as the "unity" candidate to succeed him.

That her party should rally around her at such a time of national uncertainty is testament not only to the respect in which she is held across the party but to the fact that, in a world where political reputations can be shredded in an instant, May is the ultimate political survivor.

Known for her steely, no-nonsense and inflexible demeanour, Theresa May is seen as a safe pair of hands within the Conservative Party and noted for her careful, meticulous decision-making.

But who is the woman who has striven to keep her "personal life personal"? From her religious upbringing to her grammar-school education to her penchant for alpine walks, May has been described as a woman with "no wild side".

Born in Eastbourne in Sussex, May's father, the Reverend Hubert Brasier, was an Anglican clergyman. From a young age, she was instilled with a sense of religious discipline.

The young Theresa Brasier, as she was then, threw herself into village life, taking part in a pantomime produced by her father and working in the bakery on Saturdays to earn pocket money.

A teenage May was banned from canvassing for the Tories by her father in order to avoid accusations of political bias against him. Nevertheless, this did not stop her political ambitions. Instead, she simply canvassed in the Conservative offices out of sight.

May was educated in the state sector and won a place at the former Holton Park Girls' Grammar School in Wheatley in Oxfordshire at the age of 13. "I shouldn't say it, but I probably was Goody Two Shoes," she told the Telegraph in 2012.

She studied Geography at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Her father died in a car crash while she was in her mid-20s. Her mother died from multiple sclerosis just a year later.

After graduating, May went on to work at the Bank of England and later at the Association for Payment Clearing Services.

Following two unsuccessful attempts to get elected to the House of Commons in 1992 and 1994, May was elected as the MP for Maidenhead in the 1997 general election. She went on to be appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party and served in a number of roles in the Shadow Cabinets of William Hague, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith, and David Cameron.

She has been widely characterised as a pragmatic, non-ideological politician and has been compared to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite having identified herself with the One Nation Conservative position within her party, she is seen to be predominantly concerned with getting the job done.

"My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking," she recently said. "I've always championed women in politics. We just get stuck in; politics isn't a game, the decisions we make affect people's lives".

Unlike Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne, May sees Twitter as a waste of time.

She also eschews the old boys' network associated with the Tory party. "There's an obvious reason why I'm not part of the old-boys' network - I'm not an old boy," she recently said. "I've always taken the same approach in every role I've played, which is I've got a job to do, let's get on and deliver."

After finishing her role as chairman of the party, May was replaced by Lord Saatchi and Liam Fox.

Theresa May, here in gumboots at the Conservative Party conference, says she has become accustomed to comments about her clothing and footwear. Picture / AP
Theresa May, here in gumboots at the Conservative Party conference, says she has become accustomed to comments about her clothing and footwear. Picture / AP

"Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman," she told the Sunday Times.

"It was difficult to leave, I really enjoyed being chairman."

It is her toughness that has become her political hallmark. She has coped with being one of only a small number of women in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party for 17 years and has been prepared to tell her party some hard truths - famously informing activists at the 2002 conference that "you know what some people call us - the nasty party".

Described as a workaholic, a perfectionist and a steely woman by political colleagues and friends, renditions of May fit into the wider public perception of her.

A friend from Oxford said May had "no wild side".

"Theresa does her red boxes till three in the morning, she knows more than the civil servants do and is rarely caught out. She's seen as a safe pair of hands," a minister told the Telegraph. Likewise, a senior police commander recently observed that May was a thorough decision-maker but could be inflexible afterwards, but added that her reserve could be perceived as a form of shyness.

Most famously, former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg reportedly complained that May had no small-talk and, most recently, former Chancellor Ken Clarke was recorded on a live microphone calling her a "bloody difficult woman".

Even before entering Downing St, she made history by becoming the second longest-serving Home Secretary in the past 100 years.

On her watch crime levels fell, the UK avoided a mass terrorist attack and in 2013, she successfully deported radical cleric Abu Qatada - something she lists as one of her proudest achievements, along with preventing the extradition to America of computer hacker Gary McKinnon.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who went up against her in the Commons as shadow home secretary, told the Guardian: "I respect her style - it is steady and serious. She is authoritative in Parliament - superficial attacks on her bounce off.

"The flip side is that she is not fleet of foot when crises build, she digs in her heels ...

"And she hides when things go wrong. No interviews, no quotes, nothing to reassure people or to remind people she even exists. It's helped her survive as Home Secretary - but if you are Prime Minister, eventually the buck has to stop."

When May isn't staying up until the early hours finishing work, she likes to enjoy her time off on walking holidays in Switzerland and making pasta from scratch. She has previously remarked that she prefers Jamie Oliver's spontaneous style of cooking to the more rule-bound precision of Delia Smith.

She is also a member of the Church of England and attends regularly.

She met her husband at a Tory student disco.

They were introduced by Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. May and Phillip, a banker, have no children. She has previously said that she regrets that, for health reasons, she has not been able to have children: "It just didn't happen. You look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don't have".

She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes in November 2012 and now injects insulin several times a day.

Regardless of whatever point May is trying to convey, most of her interviews are prefaced by comments on her clothes and shoes. "I have grown used to the focus on my clothes and my shoes," she has said.

Although her wider political appeal is, as yet, untested, May will not have to face a general election until 2020, unless she decides to seek a fresh mandate.

But with a slender parliamentary majority of 17 and a nation still riven by divisions over the EU referendum and anxiety over the future, she will face as tough a task, some say even tougher, than any of her recent predecessors in Downing St.

Born: October 1, 1956 (aged 59).

Job: MP for Maidenhead since 1997. Home Secretary since May 2010.

Education: Mainly state-educated with a brief time at an independent school; St Hugh's College, Oxford.

Family: Married to Philip May.

Hobbies: Cooking - she says she owns 100 recipe books. Occasional mountain walks. On BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2014, she chose Abba's Dancing Queen and Walk Like A Man, from the musical Jersey Boys, among her picks, alongside Mozart and Elgar.

On her party's future: "(It is) nothing less than the patriotic duty of our party to unite and to govern in the best interests of the whole country. We need a bold, new positive vision for the future of our country - a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us."

In her own words:

On being described by the former chancellor Ken Clarke as "a bloody difficult woman":

"Politics could do with some Bloody Difficult Women, actually."

On the relentless focus on her appearance during a speech at the Women in the World summit:

"I like clothes and I like shoes. One of the challenges for women in the workplace is to be ourselves and I say you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes."

On comparisons to Margaret Thatcher:

"I think there can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher. I'm not someone who naturally looks to role models. I've always, whatever job it is I'm doing at the time, given it my best shot. I put my all into it, and try to do the best job I can."

On being replaced as Conservative Party chairman by Lord Saatchi and Liam Fox in 2003:

"Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman."

On not being able to have children:

"I like to keep my personal life personal. We couldn't have children, we dealt with it and moved on. I hope nobody would think that mattered; I can still empathise, understand people and care about fairness and opportunity."

- staff reporter, agencies

- NZ Herald

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