The Rise of Theresa May, the U.K.’s New Prime Minister

Theresa MayBy Amy Davidson

The New Yorker

The story of how Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, became the presumptive Prime Minister is one of tragi-farcical, politico-comic self-destruction. It has played out with slapstick speed since the morning after the nation voted to leave the European Union, two and a half weeks ago, and the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had campaigned against Brexit, said that he would resign rather than preside over it. At the time, Cameron figured that he’d stick around until November, and there was an assumption in many quarters that he’d be succeeded by Boris Johnson, an M.P. and the former mayor of London, who likes to preen about how disorderly he is. But on Monday, standing in front of 10 Downing Street, Cameron said that Britain would “have a new Prime Minister in that building behind me by Wednesday evening,” and that it would be May, who had his support. She might have been on the job even sooner than that, except that, this being Britain, taking power still involves a visit to the palace, and the Queen is out of town.

Brexit has not brought out the best in British political culture, and one can say that even as an American in the age of Donald Trump. The largest issues have been the careless smashing of alliances, the lies to and the scorn for voters (by both sides, if more by Leave) that enabled the Brexit victory, and the realization by non-British E.U. citizens that many of their neighbors view them as contemptible foreigners. But it’s worth noting that the whole shakeup has been conducted with a striking lack of dignity. Some of the most absurd claims have been pronounced in what Sarah Vine, the wife of the Justice Minister, Michael Gove, referred to in a parody-defying Daily Mail column as “erudite vowel sounds.” (Such sounds were how she could tell that the reporters gathered outside her window, as the sun rose on the Brexit vote tally, “weren’t the usual nocturnal neighbourhood ne’er-do-wells.”) Gove, who was Johnson’s sidekick in the Leave campaign, turned on him, which meant that they both went down fast in the Tory leadership race, with much talk in the tabloids about knives in backsand fronts. The final self-inflicted blow, by May’s last-standing rival, the Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, was what might be called Mumgate.

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Picture: DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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