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Theresa May becomes the United Kingdom's second female prime minister


On 13 July 2016 Conservative Theresa May became the UK’s 76th prime minister. Ms May is the second female prime minister of the UK, the first being Margaret Thatcher, who governed from 1979 to 1990.

Elevation to prime minister

Ms May’s elevation comes after the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Cameron flagged his intention to step down as Prime Minister in the wake of the UK’s vote, in a referendum on 23 June 2016, to withdraw from the European Union (EU). During the referendum campaign Ms May advocated for the UK to stay inside the EU, but has subsequently committed to guide the country through its exit (a process referred to as the ‘Brexit’). In a speech on 11 July, Ms May stated ‘… our country needs strong, proven leadership—to steer us through this time of economic and political uncertainty, and to negotiate the best deal for Britain as we leave the EU and forge a new role for ourselves in the world. Because Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it.’

The election of a Conservative Party leader can be a lengthy process involving parliamentary members voting for potential candidates, followed by a vote by the full party membership on the final two candidates. Ms May, who had presented herself as the candidate of unity and experience, had emerged as the frontrunner after securing the majority of votes from Conservative Party MPs in a second-round ballot on 7 July 2016. With justice secretary Michael Gove knocked out in that ballot and former London mayor Boris Johnson not running, the race to replace Mr Cameron was originally to be a nine-week contest between Ms May and energy minister Andrea Leadsom, with Conservative Party members to elect their preferred candidate. However, Ms Leadsom withdrew from the contest on 11 July 2016, stating that ‘the interests of our country are best served by the immediate appointment of a strong and well supported prime minister.’ Ms Leadsom’s withdrawal followed controversy about her comments that appeared to suggest that being a mother made her a superior candidate to Ms May, who does not have children.

The method of Ms May’s elevation to the role has led to calls for a snap election, which Ms May has resisted, stating that she will wait until 2020 as scheduled under the UK’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. The UK Labour Party is experiencing its own leadership issues, with former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle launching a campaign against leader Jeremy Corbyn on 11 July 2016. Mr Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence within his party on 28 June 2016, but has refused to stand down as leader, citing his democratic election by Labour party members.

Biographical information

Before becoming prime minister, Ms May, 59, was the UK’s Secretary of State for the Home Department (Home Secretary) for six years (2010–16)—the longest-serving Home Secretary in 50 years. She is the member of Parliament for Maidenhead and entered Parliament in 1997. Prior to entering Parliament, Ms May worked in the financial sector, and served as a Councillor for the London borough of Merton.

Her parliamentary roles prior to becoming Home Secretary included:

  • Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, 1999–2001

  • Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 2001–02

  • Shadow Secretary of State for the Family, 2004–05

  • Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, 2005

  • Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, 2005–09, and

  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, 2010–12

Women and leadership

Ms May has also served as chairman of the Conservative Party. In that role she changed the party’s candidate selection system to ensure the selection of more women and ethnic minority candidates. It was reported on 13 July 2016 that Ms May ‘will promote women into some of the most senior positions in her government’, which ‘could mean that close the half of the Cabinet are women’. Women made up one third of David Cameron’s most recent Cabinet. To date, only some of Ms May’s cabinet appointments have been announced.

Ms May will be working with other female leaders within the UK—the first ministers of Scotland (Nicola Sturgeon) and Northern Ireland (Arlene Forster).

Internationally, should Hillary Clinton be successful in her bid for the United States (US) presidency, then three of the world’s top five economies—the US (Hillary Clinton), UK (Theresa May) and Germany (Angela Merkel)—will be led by women, with women also in charge of the IMF (Christine Lagarde) and the US Federal Reserve (Janet Yellen).

For more information about women and leadership, see the Parliamentary Library’s November 2015 FlagPost A snapshot of current trends for women in leadership.