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Theresa May

Position: Secretary of State for the Home Office (Home Secretary)

Last Updated: Friday, January 7th, 2011

Theresa May is only the fourth woman in history to have held one of the four great offices of state – the others being Margaret Thatcher (PM), Margaret Beckett (Foreign Secretary) and Jacqui Smith, one of May’s predecessor’s as Home Secretary.

Her appointment came as something of a surprise: she had never held the Home Affairs brief in opposition, but the man who had been Shadow Home Secretary until the general election, Chris Grayling, was deemed to have committed one gaffe too many and was demoted to a more junior role in another department.

In putting together his Government, David Cameron will also have felt the need for a female face among those in the top Cabinet jobs, and with many of his male colleagues in immovable positions, Theresa May was the most senior woman to fit the bill.

Aside from her duties at the Home Office, where national security, immigration and police reform are all high in her in-tray, she is also the Minister for Women and Equality.

Born in 1956 to a Church of England minister, she gained a degree in Geography from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before embarking on a career at the Bank of England and then the Association for Payment Clearing Services, where she was latterly head of the European Affairs Unit prior to her election to Parliament in 1997.

She had long been involved in politics, however, serving as a councillor in the London Borough of Merton between 1986 and 1994, and twice donning the blue rosette in safe Labour parliamentary seats: 

against Hilary Armstrong at the 1992 general election in Durham North West and at the 1994 Barking by-election which sent Margaret Hodge to Westminster for the first time.

After earning her spurs, she then set about finding a safe Tory seat for herself, eventually bagging the nomination for Maidenhead in Berkshire.

Once ensconced in the House of Commons as one of just 13 women on the Tory benches after the 1997 election, she was swiftly promoted to the front bench by William Hague after a year to be a junior education spokesman. She then attained Shadow Cabinet rank in 1999 (one of the first two of the 1997 intake to do so, the other being Andrew Lansley) as Shadow Education and Employment Secretary, a post in which she remained up until the 2001 general election.

She has remained at the top table ever since, holding a variety of positions as leaders have come and gone, serving variously between

2001 and the 2010 general election as spokesman on Transport, the Environment, Local Government, the Family, Culture, Media & Sport, Work and Pensions and as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

But prior to her appointment as Home Secretary, her most prominent role was when Iain Duncan Smith made her party chairman (replacing David Davis) in the summer of 2002. Her elevation to that job was seen as an overture to the modernising tendency inside the party and an indication at the time of Duncan Smith’s desire to lead a more inclusive party which was more female-friendly.

However, she swiftly blotted her copybook with many party members when she told the party conference in 2002 that some people still called the Tories “the nasty party” and that the party had lots to do in terms of broadening its base and changing its image if it really aimed to return to government again.

Her own politics would be characterised as those of a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road party loyalist. She has certainly never been associated with any of the traditional factions of the Left or Right of the party, but would broadly be deemed a “moderniser”, having backed Michael Portillo for the leadership in 2001 and David Cameron in 2005 (after spending a ludicrously long time posturing about whether she might stand herself).

Well known for her penchant for stylish shoes, she is married to Philip May, a political consort in the Denis Thatcher mould, who was President of the Oxford Union the term after Alan Duncan in 1979.

Jonathan Isaby

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