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Op-Ed

Seven takeaways from Theresa May’s ascension to U.K. prime minister

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire on July 11, 2016. Theresa May has since succeeded David Cameron as UK prime minister.

Theresa May is poised to become Britain’s next prime minister on Wednesday. This means there is a reasonable chance the post-Brexit whirlwind of U.K. politics will quiet somewhat. Here are seven things that stand out about the next PM:

1. Her experience. Ms. May has been in the top ranks of British politics for almost two decades. She is one of the longest-serving home secretaries, overseeing domestic security, law and order, and immigration. With the exception of Michael Gove, who was knocked out early in the contest, she was by far the most experienced candidate in the race.

2. Her resilience. Ms. May is what Americans call a tough cookie. When I was in government, she was the Cabinet minister with whom David Cameron least liked to tangle. When Ms. May said no, she meant no. This did not always lead to perfect policy outcomes, of course. But few in Westminster doubt her strength.

3. Modernizing instincts. As the Conservative Party’s first female chairman, Ms. May pointed out in 2002 that to many voters the Tories were seen as the “nasty party” and that reform was essential. She helped to lay the ground for David Cameron to emerge as a new, more moderate face of the Conservative Party. Ms. May was also one of the first senior Conservatives to back same-sex marriage.

4. She backed Remain. As the only leadership candidate who was on the losing side of the Brexit vote, she is, paradoxically, well-placed to unite the Conservative Party in parliament. Most Tory MPs were, like Ms. May, in the Remain camp. But she was a lukewarm Remainer and has a history of being skeptical of European institutions–including the European Convention on Human Rights–which will endear her to Brexiteers. Already she has made it clear that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she will only trigger Article 50, which governs the process by which an EU member exits, when she has her negotiating position worked out. So far, so good. (Particularly for those worried about market volatility and the U.K. economy in the wake of the June 23 referendum.)

5. Government stability. Given her strong support among parliamentary colleagues, Ms. May is not likely to feel any need to trigger an emergency general election. Instead, she can make the case that the U.K. needs a stable government during the lengthy Brexit negotiations to come (and she’ll be right). Labour politicians calling for an election are whistling in the wind, especially given their own leadership civil war.

6. Gender issues and non-issues. Theresa May is about to become the U.K.’s second female prime minister and there has been refreshingly little commentary on her gender. The only real exception was the row caused by her opponent Andrea Leadsom, who clumsily implied in a recent interview that not being a mother made Ms. May less qualified. (Ms. Leadsom apologized shortly before dropping out of the contest.) If Labour MPs manage to dislodge their leader, Jeremy Corbyn (an outcome that may be decided in court), the favorite to succeed him is Angela Eagle, who is married to a woman.

7. Redressing the class balance. The United Kingdom has been run by posh people, since, well, forever. But David Cameron’s crowd was a particularly upper-crust bunch, mostly educated at private schools. Ms. May, by contrast, went to a comprehensive high school (in American English, a public school). To the extent that there is need for more class diversity among governing elites, this is another piece of good news.

None of this alters the disastrous economic implications of the Brexit vote. But by turning to May, the Conservatives will be better prepared to secure a period of stable government, with a little more class and gender diversity thrown in for good measure. That’s about the best one could hope for.

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