The 59-year-old home secretary’s carefully cultivated image of political dependability and unflappability appears to have made her the right person at the right time as the fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the EU smashed possible rivals out of contention.
Long known to have nurtured leadership hopes, Mrs May – whose friends recall her early ambition to be the UK’s first female PM – could have reasonably expected to have had to wait until at least 2018 to have a shot at Downing Street.
But the EU referendum which David Cameron called and lost – the year after leading the party to its first election win in 23 years – turned political certainties on their head and, as other candidates fell by the wayside after the PM’s own resignation, Mrs May emerged as the “unity” candidate to succeed him.
That her party should rally round her at such a time of national uncertainty is testament not only to the respect in which she is held across the party but to the fact that, in a world where political reputations can be shredded in an instant, Mrs May is the ultimate political survivor.
In the early days at Westminster she became known for her exuberant choice of footwear – her kitten heels became famous in political circles in the noughties, while she named a lifetime subscription to Vogue as the luxury item she would take to a desert island.
But it is her toughness which has become her political hallmark. She has coped with being one of only a small number of women in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party for 17 years and has been prepared to tell her party some hard truths – famously informing activists at the 2002 conference that “you know what some people call us – the nasty party”.