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America, Say Hello To Theresa May, Britain's New Prime Minister

May, until recently the home secretary, is the first woman to lead the Brits and Northern Irish since Margaret Thatcher.

Posted on July 13, 2016, at 6:08 a.m. ET

Take a good look at this face, America: As of Wednesday, Theresa May is the person in charge of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Neil Hall / Reuters

That's a really Big Deal because she'll be the first woman to hold the office since Margaret Thatcher, best known on this side of the pond for being President Reagan's British BFF.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"But wait," you ask, "I haven't been paying attention, what happened to David Cameron? Wasn't he the prime minister?"

Wpa Pool / Getty Images

Well, long story short, Brexit happened to David Cameron. After the U.K. voted last month to leave the European Union, Cameron — who had staked his political career on convincing the country to stay — announced he'd be stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party.

The U.K. has a parliamentary system, under which the leader of the party who can command a majority of MPs in parliament — which is like a fancy British Congress — gets to become prime minister. In this case, the Conservative Party.

Reuters Staff / Reuters

Cameron's resignation set off a race to succeed him. But most of the people who were in the race and had advocated leaving the EU in the first place, ran for the exit themselves. In a particularly theatrical move, Justice Secretary Michael Gove shoved his way into the contest, destroying the chances of his former ally Boris Johnson in the process. But he was promptly shoved back out again, coming third in the ballots of MPs and being eliminated from the final round.

Soon it was down to a choice between May and dark-horse candidate Andrea Leadsom, the minister of state for energy and climate change.

Reuters Staff / Reuters

Leadsom surprised everyone when she dropped out on Monday, clearing the path for May to move forward unopposed.

But who is May, you ask? Well, May is currently the British home secretary, in charge of law enforcement within England and Wales — policing is devolved for Scotland and Northern Ireland — and oversees security and counter-terrorism for all of the UK, including protecting its borders and immigration.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

She first came to prominence back in 2002 when she became the first woman to be appointed chair of the Conservatives, when the party was in opposition.

Sang Tan / AP

It was at that year's Conservative conference that she denounced her party's inability to admit its past failures as "unrepentant, just plain unattractive."

"Yes, we've made progress, but let's not kid ourselves. There's a way to go before we can return to government. There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, You know what some people call us: the nasty party," she said, popularizing a phrase that helped make her a household name in Britain.

When the Conservatives took power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron chose May to head the Home Office, making her the second woman to hold the position.


She's since become the longest-serving home secretary in more than 60 years, overseeing reform of Britain's police, MI5 — the U.K.'s domestic security agency — and the country's drug policies.

For two years, she also served as minister for women and equality, and although she was initially known to be an opponent of equal rights for LGBT — including right to adoption — she apologized in 2010 for her former stance.

Another part of that role is policing immigration into the country, which has led to some of her most controversial positions.


Back in 2010, David Cameron promised the Conservatives would reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country to below 100,000 people per year. As home secretary, it was largely up to May to deliver on that promise, but the government never came close to hitting the target. In fact, the numbers have swelled even higher over the last two years, largely as a result of the refugee crisis, with some 330,000 people arriving in 2015.

May also oversaw a rise in the amount of money migrants to the U.K. need to make per year before their families could join them. As of April, "those living in the country for less than 10 years now need to earn at least £35,000 ($46,000) a year if they want to settle permanently in the UK." That has been criticized by some for making family reunification something only the wealthy can afford.

May has been heavily opposed to the quota system the European Union has put into place to help distribute the influx of refugees. She's also acknowledged that immigration numbers are likely to go up further still before they fall again.

May has also clashed with mainland Europe over her bid to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada from the U.K.

Andrew Burton / AP
AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

Qatada, a Jordanian national who was granted asylum in the U.K back in 1993, allegedly had links to terrorist groups and praised the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. After several arrests and attempts to send him back to Jordan were blocked by the European Court of Human Rights, the U.K. and Jordan signed a treaty that would ensure that he wouldn't be tortured upon his return.

The experience soured May's relationship with the European Court of Human Rights and in April she hinted that Britain might withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a stance she later reversed during her campaign to lead the Conservatives.

"And what of Brexit?" you ask. "Will she go through with it?" Well, the short answer is, "Yes, yes she will."

Wpa Pool / Getty Images

May stood by Cameron in advocating for the Remain campaign. But she was never particularly forceful about it. And after the vote, she pledged to follow through with the results.

"Brexit means Brexit," she said at the end of June. "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."

"We have a job to do in making the best deal we can in coming out of the EU and I am very clear that I will deliver Brexit," she added.

And how long will she be in office? Well, she can stay in office until at least 2020, and has said repeatedly this week that she doesn't plan to call for elections before then.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

It's also quite tricky for May to call an early election. Under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, introduced by the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition, the power of the prime minister to call elections at any time was removed and the term was set for five years. To call an early election, May would have to secure a two-thirds majority of MPs or repeal the act.

So that's Prime Minister May! Want to know more ~trivia~ about her? Be sure to check out this helpful guide put together by BuzzFeed UK.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.