Theresa Mary May (née Brasier; born 1 October 1956) is a British politician, notable for serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party from 2016 to 2019. She has also been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Maidenhead since 1997.
The daughter of a vicar, May grew up in Oxfordshire. From 1977 to 1983, she worked for the Bank of England, and from 1985 to 1997 at the Association for Payment Clearing Services, also serving as a councillor for Durnsford in Merton.
After unsuccessful bids for the House of Commons in 1992 and 1994 (she stood in safe Labour seats both times — North West Durham and Barking, respectively), she was elected as the MP for Maidenhead in the 1997 general election. From 1999 to 2010, May served in several roles in the Shadow Cabinets of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, and David Cameron, including Shadow Transport Secretary and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. She was also Chair of the Conservative Party (the first woman to serve as such) from 2002 to 2003. It was in the latter role that she first came to attention, when she publicly acknowleged and expressed a desire to change the Conservatives' reputation as being the "Nasty Party" for holding on to bigoted anti-minority attitudes and hardline free-market policies that were increasingly unpopular with the electorate. This speech was subsequently credited with starting a move to more moderate Conservatism that began during Howard's leadership and gathered steam after Cameron took over.
After the formation of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government following the 2010 general election, led by new Prime Minister Cameron, May was appointed Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, giving up the latter role in 2012. Reappointed after the Conservatives' outright victory in the 2015 general election, she went on to become the longest-serving Home secretary since James Chuter Ede held the post for the entirety of Clement Attlee's 194551 government over 60 years before.
Following David Cameron's resignation on 24 June 2016 in the wake of Britain's vote to leave The European Union, May announced her candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party and quickly emerged as the front-runner after the other early favourite (Boris Johnson) was betrayed by one of her Cabinet colleagues, the notoriously anti-intellectual Michael Gove, and left the race. (Gove was subsequently booted out of cabinet while Johnson would somehow get made Foreign Secretary.) May was seen by many as an ideal compromise candidate — she had backed Remain in the referendum, albeit tepidly and apparently after some convincing, and ran as a candidate who could reunite the party, whose MPs had been allowed to campaign for Remain or Leave as they wished. She won the first ballot of Conservative MPs on 5 July by a significant margin and, two days later, won the votes of 199 MPs, going forward to face a vote of Conservative Party members in a contest with Andrea Leadsom, a Minister of State for Energy. Leadsom's withdrawal from the election on 11 July (after some ill-advised comments in an interview where she essentially claimed that she'd make a better prime minister because she was a mother, whereas May was not; this was considered especially harsh due to May being unable to conceive) led to May's appointment as leader the same day. She was appointed prime minister two days later — the second woman to reach that office, some 37 years after Margaret Thatcher. As a result of Leadsom's jibes, she would also be known as the first childless PM since Edward Heath over 40 years before.
Her first six months in office saw the Conservatives earn some of the highest ever poll ratings for a sitting government, although this was attributed largely due to her "honeymoon bounce" occurring at a time when the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was extremely unpopular, the Liberal Democrats had yet to recover from their drubbing at the 2015 election, and UKIP were suffering a protracted leadership crisis. Even the first major crises of her premiership — a major public transport strike and widespread issues with the National Health Service (NHS) — did very little to dent her popularity, with the media blaming Labour almost exclusively for both (the former because the transport unions were among that party's major bankrollers, the latter due to cuts and reforms dating back to the Tony Blair era). Following her lack of condemnation for new American President Donald Trump's immigration ban and him being invited on a state visit despite his unpopularity in Britain, however, protests and rallies broke out in every major city of the UK, and the rest of 2017 was predicted to be a bumpier ride, as she would have to make her case for how the country would withdraw from the EU. However, her poll ratings remained exceptionally high well into the spring, resulting in her making a fateful decision.
On 18 April 2017, May announced a snap general election to be held on 8 June, which was a turnaround from a previous statement saying she wouldn't hold one. It didn't go exactly to plan. At the time this was seen as a smart move, as Labour was divided and had a deeply unpopular leader, the SNP was only concerned with Scotland, the Liberal Democrats had lost all but eight seats in 2015, and UKIP had lost all sense of direction with their ostensible purpose fulfilled and it was anticipated the Conservatives would take most of the 3.8 million votes they received in 2015. With the Conservatives leading in the polls by over twenty percentage points in the early weeks of the campaign, and the local elections that took place a month before the general election resulting in substantial gains for the Conservatives, all signs suggested she would win a landslide mandate and get a stronger hand for Brexit, with some predicting that the Tories would earn their most seats since before World War II.
However, Labour rallied and united under Jeremy Corbyn (who made an unexpectedly good impression on the electorate during the campaign, partly because his opponents tried, oxymoronically, simultaneously to mock him as a pathetic, senile old man and depict him as a terrifying communist threat to Our Way of Life), and despite Brexit looming and continuing urgent issues like the NHS crisis and school funding, the Conservatives made headlines for a bizarre manifesto that included such policies as bringing back fox-hunting and proposing to force the homes of elderly people getting government-funded social care to be sold after their deaths to reclaim the money (derisively nicknamed the "dementia tax"). May's refusal to participate in televised leadership debates,note her constant attacks on Labour, and her 'robotic' repetition of soundbites like "Strong and stable leadership" progressively ate away at the Tory lead in the polls. The tragic terrorist attacks in London and Manchester brought further criticism over her decision to cut the numbers of police officers during her time as Home secretary, as well as a suggestion she could curb human rights. In the end, the Conservatives actually lost their majority in the House of Commons, falling short by nine seats. Labour, on the other hand, gained a net 30 seats — some in places that had been safe Conservative seats for over a century — and even the Liberal Democrats managed a small but significant fightback. The only good news was in Scotland, where the Conservatives won 12 seats from the SNP (who had achieved a near clean-sweep in 2015) and thus had multiple Scottish MPs for the first time in two decades — though this was credited almost entirely to the popularity of the Scottish Conservatives' leader Ruth Davidson.
To secure a very slim majority in the House of Commons, May entered into a 'confidence and supply agreement' with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland (its ten MPs would vote with the Tories in return for concessions, with no seats in cabinet) and sought permission from HM The Queen to form a government. This caused enormous backlash throughout the UK as more socially liberal people decried the DUP's hardline social policies (including wanting to roll back, among other things, abortion rights and gay rights) and the possibility that having the DUP enter into an agreement with the Conservatives could be construed as a violation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Tories eventually did form a government with DUP backing, although cracks began showing within the British conservative movement and May's inability to enforce discipline within her party became increasingly apparent.
May was further criticized after the decision was made to give £1.5 billion to Northern Ireland at the DUP's instigation (despite previously loudly insisting that the government had no money to provide NHS workers with a pay raise), which many people saw as a bribe which would damage the balance of power in Northern Ireland. As if to make things even worse, her refusal to meet with survivors of London's Grenfell Tower fire disaster over 'security concerns' brought a further barrage of criticism — not helped by Jeremy Corbyn, the Queen, and Prince William all visiting without any issue. Her leadership abilities were further called into question as ministers like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson began very publicly making statements that seemed to go against her own positions while others, like Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, were caught in the wave of sexual scandals of 2017 and forced to step down.
Her weakness as a leader was only reinforced, in the eyes of many, during a disastrous Conservative Party Conference where during her keynote speech the backdrop fell apart; she began coughing so badly that Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had to step in and hand her a cough sweet; and a prankster came up to the stage and handed her a P45 form,note saying it was from Boris.
Through it all, May was trying to navigate her country through the post-Brexit-referendum minefield, not helped by the vast majority of negotiations being taken up by settling the so-called "divorce bill" (such sticking points including the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). Despite strong pressure from the extreme-Eurosceptic European Research Group of her party, led primarily by Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to slash and burn all the UK's links with the EU as soon as it leaves, regardless of any cost to the economy, May finally presented a draft Brexit plan in summer 2018 that didn't satisfy anyone: most Brexiteers thought it didn't go far enough in severing relations, while anti-Brexiteers still feared the prospect of economic and/or social disasters. This caused Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis to resign their Cabinet positions within days, leading to speculation that one or both of them would launch a leadership challenge, though neither did.
Things ended up coming to a head in December 2018. First, May's government was held in contempt of Parliament (the first time this had ever happened to a UK government) for defying a vote to release legal documents related to Brexit. Then May attempted to put her proposed agreement to Parliament, only to have to withdraw it before it ever got to a vote after it became clear that it had no hope of passing due to the way it handled the Northern Ireland situation. This resulted in Eurosceptic rebels finally calling a vote of no confidence in her leadership, which she did win, but with about a third of the parliamentary party voting against her continuing in office — for perspective, this was roughly the same result that John Major got when his leadership was challenged in 1995, two years before the Conservatives fell from government in a landslide. So, on paper, she was safe as Conservative leader for another year, but by her own admission ended any chance of her leading the party into the next general election, scheduled for 2022.
The situation did not improve for May. In January 2019, her Brexit deal was voted down in the Commons in the worst defeat any democratic government in the UK has ever suffered (202–432, a difference of 230 votes against).note And with the clock running down, the Prime Minister not backing down from her rigid approach, the European Research Group's constant rebellions, Labour's consistent opposition unless some red lines were dropped, and the EU's unwillingness to renegotiate made her life more difficult every day. Two more heavy defeats on the deal culminated in Mrs May having to accept a delay in the EU exit date from 29 March to 31 October, forcing the UK to participate in that year's European Parliament elections in late May and helping lower her approval ratings to the lowest any UK prime minister has had since organised polling began.note This, along with the Conservative Party suffering a heavy defeat in the local elections at the start of May 2019, made her position somehow even more untenable than it already was, to the point where the party management were allegedly ready to scrap the rule protecting her from further leadership challenges until December — forcing her at last to bow to the inevitable.
On 24 May, the day after the European elections (in which the Conservatives came in fifth), she announced her resignation from the premiership effective on 7 June, necessitating a leadership race, in which her old lurking nemesis Boris Johnson was again the frontrunner and ultimately won. This, incidentally, made her the fourth Conservative prime minister in a row whose downfall was related in some way to the European Union.
Much like her predecessor, her premiership is widely regarded as "amongst the worst", and she can't even claim an accomplishment comparable to his revitalisation of a moribund party. Negligible progress was made on any front, least of all Brexit (the very issue that made her PM in the first place), and many long-simmering tensions within the UK came to the forefront. It doesn't help that her successor Johnson successfully renegotiated the withdrawal agreement with the EU after they refused to do so with her at the helm, and he was able to take advantage of the polling boost this got him to get the other parties to agree to call a general election, but unlike May, he actually won his outright, with a very strong majority. His first order of business was to legislate the Withdrawal Act to take Britain out of Europe, accomplishing in six months (almost to the day!) what she failed to do in over three years.
May chose to stand for re-election to her constituency seat in the 2019 general election, and was duly returned. She is the first former PM to seek re-election to the Commons after having been removed from power since James Callaghan in 1983.note She is the only former PM in Parliament, and the only living female former PM (since Thatcher died before she even reached the same position).