Next U.K. Leader Best Known to U.S. in Fight Against Terrorism

  • May has reputation as ‘tough and strong’ on security issues
  • As Home Secretary, May dealt with counterterror strategy

Theresa May.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

From counterterrorism to digital privacy to fighting radical Islam, the U.S. will have an ally in Theresa May, the incoming prime minister of the U.K.

While Britain’s departure from the European Union will top May’s priority list, she has a history of working closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department on crime and terrorism in her tenure as Home Secretary.

May, who will replace David Cameron on Wednesday, gained prominence for deporting the Muslim cleric Abu Qatada to face charges in Jordan, succeeding where five predecessors failed. She led the U.K. delegation to a summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in February 2015 on defeating violent extremism.

"All of those issues to do with terrorism, extradition, European security, the ISIS-al-Qaeda threat, that will be her wheelhouse," said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “She has a reputation as being pretty tough and strong on those issues so she would be seen as an ally on that.”

As Home Secretary, May has been at the center of domestic issues in the U.K. that matter to the U.S., such as overseeing a draft bill that would provide access to and intelligence about electronic communications and data while also setting the U.K.’s counterterrorism strategy and efforts to fight radicalization.

‘Natural Partners’

The 59-year-old Conservative Party leader has met with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as well as Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whom she introduced at a speech at the Chatham House policy center in London last year, saying the two sides were “natural partners” in the fight against terrorism. She has also worked with Lynch to fight human trafficking and to address the causes of Islamic extremism.

“Unless we address the circumstances in which radicalization and terrorism thrive, we will always be fighting a rear-guard action against it,” May said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in February.

Data Collection

“She wouldn’t be an awkward partner for the States to have -- she wouldn’t give them hell about data privacy, and the right to digital privacy,” said Charles Lichfield, a London-based researcher for Eurasia Group. “That’s not been her strong point. She’s always been about collecting as much data, having the haystack to find the needle, so in that respect I think she’s very much in line with the Americans.”

Indeed, Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who’s received asylum in Russia after leaking U.S. secrets, called the Investigatory Powers Bill introduced under May “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.’’

The U.S. stuck to protocol on Monday in declining to comment on May’s rise to the job ahead of her formal assumption. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the two countries’ relationship transcends people or personalities. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. looks forward to “working with whoever the next prime minister of Great Britain is, but obviously that decision is up to the British people.”

Hacker Case

May at times hasn’t been afraid to stand up to the U.S. and risk a diplomatic rift, especially in the case of accused hacker Gary McKinnon, whom Washington sought to have extradited for allegedly hacking into military computers. May said at the time that McKinnon was “seriously ill” with Asperger’s Syndrome and depression, and sending him back to the U.S. “would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible” with his human rights.

Charles Ries, a vice president at Rand Corp. and former minister counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in London when May won a seat in parliament, said she came to the attention of U.S. officials as a rising star at the time. He said the U.S. has had “high regard for her.”

Not a Grand-Stander

“She’s the kind of minister that American cabinet members like -- she’s not a
grandstander, she’s always well-prepared, she’s hardworking and has a good
sense of the responsibilities of her office,” Ries said.

May’s focus on managing the U.K.’s exit from the European Union may push ties with the U.S. even further up her list of priorities, according to Wright.

“I think you’ll see her visit maybe quite soon and quite frequently,” he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE