Theresa May has been the UK’s longest serving Home Secretary since the Regency period. It has become a cliché to note that heading up the Home Office has undone many a political career, but it is worth recalling the recent issues that could have tripped up a less savvy political operator: the 2011 London Riots, the unprecedented rise in immigration levels, various Metropolitan Police scandals including phone hacking and the Leveson Inquiry, the ECHR blocking of the deportation of Abu Qatada, to name a few.
While avoiding these pitfalls, May has also driven a quiet but determined agenda of reform – she has overseen changes in police officer conditions and has competently improved a Border Force (as May rebranded the Border Agency) which has faced considerable funding cuts. She launched the National Crime Agency and introduced elected Police and Crime Commissioners. May would have been involved in top secret decisions on national security, and she can take some of the credit for the UK not experiencing a major terrorist attack on home soil during her time in office.
One of May’s strengths has been her measured approach. Another has been her ability to weigh in to political debates with perfect timing, sometimes controversially, without making many enemies. She is viewed by colleagues as having a strong work ethic and a crystal-clear border between the personal and the professional.
After the unedifying spectacle of an at-times purile referendum campaign, it is possible that the public and media are tired of personality-driven politics and showmanship. In such an era, May’s cautious, guarded but straightforward and business-like style will play well. But the British public has long demanded more than just competent administration from their Prime Ministers, as John Major’s team discovered. The step up from sound manager of the Home Office to UK Prime Minister at a particularly unsettled time will be a challenge. Clearly though Mrs May has the confidence of a large majority of her Parliamentary colleagues, and that is a good start for any would-be Prime Minister.