Theresa May started the day campaigning to be leader of the British Conservative Party. She ended it getting ready to take over as the country’s next prime minister.

Ms. May had barely finished her first major campaign speech Monday morning when her last remaining rival in the Conservative Party leadership race, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, dropped out amid a growing controversy over her suggestions that Ms. May wouldn’t make a good prime minister because she didn’t have children. Ms. Leadsom departed saying she didn’t have sufficient support and the long leadership campaign would be “highly undesirable” for the country.

Pro-Brexit Leadsom withdraws from British PM race (Reuters)

With Ms. May now unopposed, the party moved quickly to install her as leader and by mid-afternoon Mr. Cameron announced he would leave 10 Downing St. in 48 hours and that Ms. May would take over as prime minister on Wednesday evening.

It has been a whirlwind day for Ms. May and a wild three weeks for the country. Since the Brexit referendum on June 23, two party leaders have quit, three leading contenders for prime minister have dropped out and the Labour Party is facing an open revolt. Sterling has hit a 30-year low against the U.S. dollar, the economy is slumping and Ms. May will have to figure out how to lead Britain out of the European Union.

“I am honoured and humbled to have been chosen by the Conservative Party to become its leader,” Ms. May said in a brief statement outside Parliament surrounded by Tory members of Parliament who had been expecting the leadership contest to last until September.

The country and the world are now sizing up Britain’s new leader: a long-serving cabinet minister known for being cool-headed and uncompromising but also lacking in international experience and facing the biggest challenge Britain has confronted since the end of the Second World War.

During the recent EU referendum campaign, Ms. May supported the Remain side but rarely campaigned publicly. Nonetheless her failure to back Brexit automatically disqualified her in some eyes from becoming prime minister. Ms. Leadsom’s supporters said the country needed a prime minister who believed in Brexit.

On Monday, Ms. May insisted that whatever her views, the country had spoken. “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it. There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU,” she said.

The question now is can she negotiate a new arrangement with the EU and what it will look like. She has said her experience makes her better placed to take on the EU, telling one reporter: “I am a bloody difficult woman. The next man to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker,” the president of the European Commission who will lead the EU negotiations.

While Ms. May will be Britain’s second female prime minister, experts say she has less of the stridency of Margaret Thatcher and more of the careful, plodding nature of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“She’s certainly not a kind of neo-liberal ideological slash-and-burn privatizer,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “She believes in well-funded and well-run public services in health and education in particular. So I don’t think we’re going to see any more dramatic, more Thatcher than Thatcher, departures from her.”

Ms. May, 59, grew up in Eastbourne on England’s southern coast, the only child of an Anglican minister. “I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major. Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember,” she said on Monday.

She studied geography at Oxford where she met her future husband, Philip May, who is now a fund manager. The two were married in 1980 by Ms. May’s father, Hubert Brasier. Rev. Brasier died in a car accident the following year and her mother, Zaidee, who had multiple sclerosis, died a few months later. Ms. May, who was 25 at the time, has talked about how she relied on her husband to cope with the tragedies. “He was a real rock for me,” she told the BBC.

After graduating from Oxford, Ms. May worked in banking for 20 years, including a stint at the Bank of England, before being elected to Parliament in 1997. The Tories were swept from office in that election and Ms. May spent much of her time running the party as chairman. She admonished the Tories for not broadening their base, memorably telling the annual conference in 2002: “You know what some people call us? The nasty party.” The phrase stuck, much to the fury of some members.

When Mr. Cameron won a coalition government in 2010, Ms. May became Home Secretary, a senior cabinet position that oversees policing, counterterrorism and immigration. She won plaudits for her steady handling of a demanding position, staring down police departments for not doing enough to fight corruption in their ranks and deporting radical preacher Abu Qatada to Jordan after years of legal battles.

She also provided indispensable support to the families of those who died in the tragedy at the Hillsborough stadium in 1989, when 96 fans were crushed. An inquiry found the fans had been unlawfully killed by police inaction and cover-ups. “We’ve dealt with Home Secretaries before, but she was the first one that truly, truly listened to what we had to say and did something about it,” said Margaret Aspinall, who runs a support group for the Hillsborough families. Ms. May “is a very formidable woman as well, she doesn’t take fools lightly, you could see that right away.”

Within the party Ms. May is considered a centrist. She voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2013 but voted against other reforms including same-sex adoptions. She pushed to end police stop-and-search powers and introduced laws against modern day slavery.

On Monday, she outlined plans for a more equal society, promising to curtail executive pay, make shareholder votes on compensation binding and introduce rules that would put employees on company boards. “We’re the Conservative Party, and yes, we’re the party of enterprise – but that does not mean we should be prepared to accept that ‘anything goes,’” she said.

She has faced criticism for not living up to a Conservative campaign promise last year to bring down the annual level of net immigration to the “tens of thousands.” Instead, net migration climbed to a record 330,000 last year. That has infuriated the U.K. Independence Party which has vowed to take on Ms. May now that she will be prime minister.

Ms. May has largely guarded her personal life, shunning the political limelight and staying clear of Mr. Cameron’s inner circle that consists largely of fellow private school boys. Her passions run from collecting cookbooks to keeping a large array of stylish shoes. In 2013, she did reveal that she had Type 1 diabetes, saying she takes four injections of insulin per day. And she later talked publicly about the agony she and her husband felt at not being able to have children.

When told about Ms. Leadsom’s comments that not having children would make Ms. May less effective as prime minister, Ms. May replied that she and her husband had dealt with that and moved on. “I hope nobody would think that mattered,” she added. “I can still empathize, understand people and care about fairness and opportunity.”

Paul Waldie
European Correspondent — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jul. 11, 2016 9:24AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 11, 2016 8:44PM EDT