Theresa May took over as Britain’s prime minister Wednesday, tasked with steering the country through the Brexit crisis.
The steely 59-year-old replaced David Cameron, who became the first political casualty of last month’s referendum when he announced his intention to quit hours after the result.
She is the second woman in the job, following in the steps of fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher — who was nicknamed the “Iron Lady” and whose decade-long political partnership with President Ronald Reagan helped reshape the global order in the 1980s.
A male Conservative party grandee who served under Thatcher and supports May was last week caught in a “hot mic” moment describing her as a “bloody difficult woman.” The unguarded comment likely endeared May to grassroots party members who fondly recall Thatcher’s headstrong and stubborn approach to leadership.
The backhanded compliment has since been reclaimed by many women on social media and May also later embraced it, telling The Telegraph that “politics could do with some bloody difficult women actually.”
She added: “I think that if you believe in something strongly you should go for it and if that makes me difficult … ”
May has done little to discourage her reputation as a ruthless political operator, saying that the next person to find her “bloody difficult” would be President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
British columnist Quentin Letts described May as “dull as porridge” and “extremely dependable” but stressed that she is “not a humorist” and would “pursue the British national interest above all else.”
With the Brexit fallout on one side of the Atlantic and a divided America on the other, what is in store for relations between Washington and London?
‘Brexit Means Brexit’
May was on the losing side of the Brexit referendum, backing Cameron’s call for Britain to remain in the European Union, but now finds herself having to implement the country’s withdrawal.
However, she was lukewarm on the position and kept a low profile during the campaign, allowing her to position herself as a unity candidate to heal a Conservative party split right down the middle by the non-partisan vote.
In a speech Monday, May said she would ignore calls for a re-run of the referendum. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said. “And we’re going to make a success of it.”
She has not said when she plans to trigger Article 50, the two-year mechanism of withdrawal from the trading bloc, despite German leader Angela Merkel calling for an urgent progress.
One of the first consequences of Brexit is that Britain will need to negotiate new, separate trade deals with other countries such as the United States. However, this is unlikely to begin until well after whoever wins in November moves into the White House.