Theresa May has what former Prime Minister Tony Blair described as the toughest job in the British government. And it just got harder.
Confronted with terrorist threats from inside and outside the U.K., the home secretary is fending off skeptics from her Conservative Party’s coalition partner about laws on security and immigration, and criticism of the police from Prime Minister David Cameron after a London protest turned violent last week.
“We need to strike the right balance between the right we have to live our lives in safety and security, and the other rights which we enjoy in our society,” May said during a Nov. 3 speech in London. “But let me make clear: I will do absolutely nothing which will put at risk Britain’s national security.”
Keeping that equilibrium is May’s biggest challenge. The 54-year-old, who came to international prominence on Oct. 29 after a plane from Yemen carrying a bomb to the U.S. was intercepted at a British airport, is in a job that many of her predecessors struggled to retain.
The position has changed hands seven times since May entered parliament in 1997, more than any of the four most senior cabinet posts. May took over as her government prepared to implement the biggest budget cuts in British history.
“Most people can count on the fingers of one hand the home secretaries who’ve come out of the job with their reputations intact, let alone enhanced,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at the University of Sussex. “Theresa May, to the surprise of some, has made a solid start.”
May declined to be interviewed for this story in the week that police were criticized for their handling of a student demonstration in central London that saw 58 people arrested and windows smashed at the Conservative Party’s offices.
Police said they hadn’t expected the protest to be so large, with organizers estimating that at least 50,000 people turned up to march against government policies aimed at raising tuition. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said Nov. 11 it was an “embarrassment for us.” Cameron added that “we need to learn the lessons very rapidly.”
Public protests may increase as the government proposes cuts of as much as 68 percent to ministry budgets. At the same time, May’s department is reducing the number of police officers on the beat. The Home Office budget, set at 10.1 billion pounds ($16.3 billion) for the current fiscal year, is being lowered by 25 percent to tackle Britain’s record deficit.
As Home Secretary, May, who had no previous ministerial experience, oversees 29,050 civil servants in Whitehall’s fifth-biggest department, according to the Office for National Statistics. She also has responsibility for 140,000 police officers, the 3,800-member security service MI5 and the U.K. Border Agency.
“It is a very tough job because by definition you are trying to stop bad things happening,” Jacqui Smith, who held the post from June 2007 to June 2009 under the Labour administration that lost office in elections this year, said in a telephone interview. “When it goes well, you don’t get much credit and you get the blame when there is a failure.”
May also has to contend with dissent from inside her government over restrictions on the movement of terrorists without trial and the length of detention of suspects.
Cameron’s Conservatives were forced to form the first U.K. coalition government since World War II after failing to win enough seats in parliament. The Liberal Democrats, the party it joined with, are against some measures to tighten security.
Senior Liberal Democrat lawmakers wrote to Cameron pledging their opposition to control orders under which terror suspects who have not stood trial can have their movements restricted.
“We have been delighted by the coalition government’s commitment to re-claiming our civil liberties,” Liberal Democrats Tom Brake, Sally Hamwee and Martin Thomas wrote on Oct. 27. “The continuance of control orders is quite inconsistent with the thrust of those assurances.”
Cameron said the conflict is “heading for a f***ing car crash,” the Observer newspaper reported Oct. 31, without saying where it got the information. The security services say control orders should be kept, while Ken MacDonald, a Liberal Democrat in the House of Lords and former director of public prosecutions who is reviewing anti-terror laws, says they must go.
May’s diplomatic skills and the fact that she has avoided grandstanding over policy might allow her to cope with the challenge, said Bale at the University of Sussex in Brighton.
“Her reasonable, emollient style may help her manage the fallout from divisions with the Liberal Democrats better than some of the slogan-mongering traditionalists that both main parties have picked in the past,” Bale said.
Smith said May needs to stand firm against the Liberal Democrats and keep control orders, introduced by Labour, which enable the Home Office to impose curfews and restrictions on people who are suspected of terrorism when not enough evidence is admissible in court to pursue a prosecution.
“Theresa May handled the Yemen plot well, but she needs to come to the right conclusion about control orders,” Smith, 48, said. “That will be the test. It’s a question of whether she can resist the pressure from other parts of the coalition.”
May suspended unaccompanied air freight from Somalia on Nov. 1 and imposed restrictions on transporting toner cartridges in response to the Yemen plot, which was foiled when a device hidden inside a computer printer and timed to explode over the eastern U.S. was found and defused at the U.K.’s East Midlands Airport. Another device was found in Dubai. The current threat level in the U.K. from international terrorism is “severe,” meaning an attack is “highly likely.”
May, who was work and pensions spokeswoman before the May 6 election, was a surprise choice as home secretary. When she came into parliament 13 years ago, the Conservatives were entering their longest period in opposition since 1762.
What’s more, the post of home secretary has a reputation for blighting political careers.
Blair told his party conference in 2002 that “I don’t have the toughest job in government,” the home secretary does. When John Reid was appointed to the role four years later, he said the department wasn’t “fit for purpose.” It was Reid’s last job in government.
May has helped steer her party, shaped in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, back into power. In 2002, when May was party chairman, she said it must no longer be the “nasty party.”
The daughter of a clergyman, she was best known in Britain’s tabloid press for her taste for leopard print kitten heel shoes before she was appointed to her current job. She started her working life at the Bank of England before becoming head of European affairs for the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a financial services trade association.
As well as navigating her way through anti-terror legislation, May has to enact Cameron’s promise to put a cap on immigration from outside the European Union, a policy that was lampooned by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, during the election campaign.
The Conservatives have made concessions, with Cameron telling lawmakers that intra-company transfers will not be included and promising an “entrepreneur’s visa,” which will enable people with new ideas backed by capital to move to the U.K. May will have to steer through the rest.
“It will take hard work and a great deal of political courage, but we will do it,” May said on Nov. 5. The future of the coalition may depend on it.