Money & Careers

Portrait of Theresa May, Britain’s Second Female PM

May was the only major candidate in the contest for Conservative leadership who did not support Brexit, the populist push for Britain to exit the European Union. But her advocacy for remaining in the EU was very low key. That was an astute political strategy on May’s part, because though it put her on the losing side when the Stay camp lost, she was able to quietly cross over to the winners. “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it,” she famously said as the newly minted PM.

Before the vote, Asa Bennett had written, “Her restrained approach to campaigning for Remain has helped her avoid alienating Tory [Conservative Party] Brexiteers, and the polls suggest her reputation has held up better than some of her potential leadership rivals.”

Indeed. When the Leave faction won the referendum, May was still standing, unlike her Tory peers, including Prime Minister Cameron, who had campaigned vigorously in favor of remaining in the EU. She stepped into the void, and announced her candidacy for the top spot.

“I know I’m not a showy politician,” she said. “I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”

It’s a daunting job, managing Britain’s exit from the EU. The main impetus behind Brexit was wide-scale anger against unfettered immigration, the mostly non-white immigrants, and globalization. As a member of the EU, Britain is compelled to accept migrants from every other EU member.

May staunchly opposes unrestricted immigration. “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” she said in one 2015 speech. “It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.”

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The same argument is being made here, on the other side of the pond, but in neither case do the data support it. Government and academic studies show that immigrant labor has contributed to the growth of both the UK and US economies.

The economic consequences of the Leave vote pose a huge challenge for May. The economies of EU countries are almost inextricably linked. Not only will  May have to find a way to revive a stumbling economy hobbled by austerity, she will have to negotiate trade agreements and treaties individually with every EU member.

She has begun to negotiate the terms for exit with German Chancellor Merkel. May is pressing for access to the same free trade with the EU that Britain enjoyed as a member, but without the unrestricted immigration that goes with it. But Merkel can’t allow Britain to profit from the advantages of membership while rejecting the requirement to allow unrestricted immigration. Merkel fears other members would follow the UK’s example, and the carefully constructed European Union would disintegrate. Merkel and May have a hard needle to thread.

May became a member of Parliament 19 years ago. What she will accomplish as PM is difficult to predict, because her record is not consistent. She supports gay marriage but has voted against allowing gay couples to adopt. She stood for “law and order” as home secretary (in charge of anti-terrorism and security), a post she held for longer than anyone else since the 19th century. May strengthened anti-terror laws and instituted new restrictions on immigration, thereby pleasing her fellow Conservatives and enraging defenders of civil liberties. She would like to increase Internet surveillance on much of the population. At the same time, she has decried “the ‘unhealthy and growing gap’ between ‘bosses’ and ‘workers,’ and called for representatives of workers and consumers to be placed on boards of large corporations. ‘It is not anti-business to suggest that big business needs to change,’ she said. She also bemoaned the high cost of housing, the abuses of consumers by monopolies, and the growing income gap between London and the rest of the U.K., saying, ‘We must make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every single one of us.’”

Writing in Vox, Zack Beauchamp opined, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that May’s tenure will shape the course of British and European history for the foreseeable future.” Yes, a woman with the smarts and the grit to scale a political Everest will find a way to navigate the treacherous waters she has embarked upon. Women are taking up the reins of government—and they are writing their own history.


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