Theresa May earned a reputation as a safe pair of hands as she navigated a job often seen as a poisoned chalice to become the longest-serving home secretary for more than a century.
Now the 59-year-old vicar’s daughter faces the toughest challenge of her political career and is set to arrive at Downing Street tasked with negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.
She started out stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative Association and will now be expected to stamp her authority on the party in the wake of the EU referendum.
Although she was signed up to the Remain campaign, Ms May kept a very low profile during the lead-up to the vote.
But her reputation as a “reluctant Remainer” has not saved her from attacks by rivals who insist Brexit-backing voters will want a prime minister who actively campaigned to leave.
And she has sparked controversy by saying she could not guarantee that EU citizens living in the UK would be allowed to stay after Brexit, insisting their fate must be part of negotiations with former EU partners.
She will now take charge of a party she once described as “nasty” when she tried, as party chairman, to oversee modernisation.
It is not the only time the she has doled out some harsh truths with little sugar coating. Members of the Police Federation were stunned into silence when Ms May attacked the organisation in a blistering speech.
Hanging on to the home secretary brief, which notoriously ruins political careers, for six years shows her ability to navigate stormy political waters.
Securing the deportation of radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada after a lengthy legal battle boosted her popularity among the party’s rank and file.
However, she has held the post at a time when net migration has reached record levels of around a third of a million, leaving the government under intense pressure over its target of reducing the figure to below 100,000 While her long track record in the senior echelons of British politics is well-documented, the famously private Tory lets little slip about her personal life.
Earlier this month she revealed that she and her husband Philip were affected by not being able to have children but said it was just “one of those things”.
“You see friends who now have grown-up children, but you accept the hand that life deals you,” she told The Mail On Sunday.
Ms May told of her “shock” three years ago after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which means she must inject herself with insulin at least twice a day for the rest of her life.
But the illness “doesn’t affect how I do the job”, she insisted, adding: “It’s a case of head down and getting on with it.”
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Walk Like A Man’, from the musical Jersey Boys, were among her picks.
The fashion-conscious politician, known for her love of kitten heel shoes and designer outfits, chose a lifetime’s subscription to Vogue as her luxury item to take to the island.
Politics is a “way of life” that leaves little time for relaxing, but occasional mountain walks and culinary experimentation — she owns more than 100 cookbooks — are among her outside interests.
Ms May is still a practising member of the Anglican church, but said it was “right that we don’t flaunt these things here in British politics”.
Philip was her “rock” when she mourned the death of her father, the Reverend Hubert Brasier, in a car accident in 1981, and the loss of her mother months later.
Educated at Wheatley Park Comprehensive School in Oxfordshire and St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she read geography, she embarked on a career in finance that included a six-year stint at the Bank of England.
Elected to Merton Council in 1986, she later headed to Westminster as MP for Maidenhead in 1997.
How Thatcher and May measure up
Here is how Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, who is set to become the UK’s second woman prime minister, compare:
Margaret Thatcher — 53 Theresa May — 59
Margaret Thatcher — 20 Theresa May — 19
Margaret Thatcher — three years as a junior pensions minister from 1961-64; education secretary for three years and nine months from 1970-74 Theresa May — home secretary for six years and two months, from 2010 to date
Margaret Thatcher — MP for Finchley from 1959 to 1992 Theresa May — MP for Maidenhead from 1997 to date
Margaret Thatcher — twice, in 1950 and 1951 Theresa May twice, in 1992 and 1994
Margaret Thatcher (born Margaret Roberts) — Grantham, Lincolnshire, 1925 Theresa May (born Theresa Brasier) — Eastbourne, East Sussex, 1956
Margaret Thatcher — studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford University Theresa May — studied geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford University
Margaret Thatcher — husband (Denis), two children (Carol and Mark) Theresa May — husband (Philip)
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