It’s hard to explain how the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy can produce a new prime minister without an election, just three weeks after the nation split in two over a referendum that will catapault the UK out of the European Union.
But after these three weeks of high drama and skullduggery in both our main parties, at a time of massive uncertainty in the wake of the referendum, when the UK has beaten Argentina to the dubious honor of having the world’s worst-performing currency, it seems providential suddenly to have a woman take the helm who is calm, shy, judicious – and the sort of quiet Anglican who represents the best of the Conservative Party.
Theresa May lives twenty minutes from me, in Sonning, over the county border in Berkshire, but grew up here in rural Oxfordshire, the daughter of a vicar whose name – the Rev. Hubert Brasier – could be straight out of Trollope.
Every Sunday she can, she attends St Andrew’s in Sonning, the kind of pretty ancient Anglican church (part of it was built in the tenth century) that stands for Middle England in film and television series.
Its vicar, the Rev. Jamie Taylor, says she is a “very supportive member” of the congregation, who attends not just services with her husband Philip but what Anglicans call “socials” – special occasions such as the parish’s September show.
“We pray weekly for Her Majesty and those set in authority under her,” says the vicar, “and that prayer will take on a little more significance for us at St. Andrew’s in the years ahead.”
May, 60, was an only child who went to a grammar school to receive the kind of publicly-funded education reserved at that time for bright, middle-class children without wealth.
“I shouldn’t say it, but I probably was Goody Two Shoes”, she once recalled.
She knew she wanted to be a politician by the age of 12.
“You don’t think about it at the time, but there are certain responsibilities that come with being the vicar’s daughter. You’re supposed to behave in a particular way.”
She has early memories of “a father who couldn’t always be there when you wanted him to be” and one time “being in the kitchen and looking up the path to the back door where a whole group, a family, that had come to complain about an issue in the church and that’s it – just knock on the door and expected to see the vicar.”
She went to Oxford to read Geography, where she met her husband Philip at a Conservative Party student disco (after close to 40 years together, they are still loving and close). Contemporaries recall her as conscientious, with no interest in gossip or frivolity. Both May and her husband went on to work in financial services.
Then came a series of tragedies: in 1981, her father was killed in a car accident, the following year her mother died of multiple schlerosis, and the Mays found they could not have children.
“It just didn’t happen,” she says. “You look at families all the time, and you see there is something there that you don’t have.”
(May’s challenger for Tory leader, Andrea Leadsom, badly misjudged the public sympathy that followed this rare insight into her private life. The reaction to Leadsom’s car-crash interview in The Times last Saturday led to her withdrawal from the race to succeed Cameron and today’s coronation of May.)
What does May’s Christianity mean to her?
Like many Anglicans in public life, she is wary of referring publicly to her faith; British politicians who do constantly face boorish questions about hearing voices.
Asked about it on BBC Radio 4 in 2014, she said that it was “right we don’t flaunt these things here in British politics”. But she also said that her faith does impact on her politics – as her voting record shows.
In 1998, she voted against lowering the age of consent for gay sexual relations, and in 2002 against gay adoption. In 2008, she voted to lower the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks – a position she is said still to hold.
But she has changed. She won her Maidenhead seat for the Conservative Party during Tony Blair’s Labour landslide election of 1997, and like David Cameron, learned from Blair’s ability to reach out to the other part of the electorate and govern from the center.
She was part of the liberal Tory Reform Group from 2001 that sought (as did David Cameron) to bring Conservatives back to the center. She told the party conference the following year that its social base and values were too narrow.
“You know what some people call us? The nasty party”, she said, adding that the party should look like 21st-century Britain rather than “hankering after some mythical place called Middle England and descending into glib moralizing and hypocritical finger-wagging”.
Having recognized that her own social background was exceptional, perhaps gone forever, she became part of the Cameronian project of social liberalization that led to the narrow Conservative electoral victories in 2010 and 2015.
She set up a campaign to elect more women MPs to parliament, and as prime minister is likely have more women in cabinet positions than any previous UK government.
As Home Secretary she U-turned on gay adoption, calling in 2010 for a “cultural change” to tackle homophobia, and became a strong advocate of same-sex marriage, introduced in 2013, voting the following year to extend the same right to armed forces personnel serving outside the UK.
“If two people care for each other, if they love each other, then they should be able to get married”, she said.
Her evolving views have left social conservatives on the right of the Tory Party suspicious, while liberals point to her anti-immigrant rhetoric and call to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
She refused last year to accept a mandatory EU refugee quota system in response to the Mediterranean migrant boat crisis and outraged campaigners – including some Christians – by also ruling out Britain taking part in any future EU system to relocate asylum seekers who successfully make the journey across the Mediterranean.
But the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who has been critical of the government over its migration and refugee policies, says he is “personally delighted” she has become prime minister.
In unusually effusive words for a church leader addressing a political leader, the president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales praised her “maturity of judgement, the steely resolve, the sense of justice and the personal integrity and warmth you have always shown” in a letter of congratulations.
The warm feelings are, at least in part, the result of her support of his and Pope Francis’s anti-human trafficking initiative. As Home Secretary she spoke at the first meeting of the Santa Marta group in the Vatican in 2014, when she met Pope Francis, and has been a consistent backer of the initiative.
No one becomes Prime Minister without entering into such contradictions and tensions. Her capacity to last so long on the high wires of politics – she has been Home Secretary for six years, in a job that has burned out the best – owes much to her inner strength, and ability to see the bigger picture, all of which are inextricable from her firm Anglican faith.
It is why, despite being a quiet supporter of Britain remaining in the EU, she has convinced enough of her party that she is the right person to guide the UK out of membership. Tough, hard-working, cool under fire, moral but pragmatic, May stands the strongest chance, as of today, of leading Britain through the coming troubled waters.