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Theresa May Is In Line To Be Britain's Next Prime Minister

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Turbulent hardly gets to the head-spinning events in British politics these past weeks since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned the day after that vote. Those eyeing his seat began to trade accusations of lies and backstabbing. And in the latest twist, one of the candidates unexpectedly quit the race, leaving Home Secretary Theresa May the last woman standing for the top job. To help us unpack this political melodrama - soap opera, you might say - we're joined by David Rennie of The Economist. Good morning.

DAVID RENNIE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the story, first of all, the latest moment, which is Theresa May now say - set to become prime minister. How did that happen?

RENNIE: Well, soap opera doesn't sort of capture the bloodiness of it, really. It's a bit like - so Britain can only cope with a certain amount of high drama for a certain amount of time. And so yesterday was - calm had to be restored. We needed someone sensible to come in and kind of soak up the mess that all these men - these big ego-driven men with their backstabbing plans had sorted out.

And it's a bit like if people watch the James Bond films. If you imagine kind of Bond and all the other villains dead and covered in blood all over the floor and then in comes Judi Dench's M, just kind of no nonsense - clip, clip, clip, you know? Enough trouble, you know, honestly, men, you know, enough. We have to clean this up...

MONTAGNE: M for May, how about that (laughter)?

RENNIE: Exactly, and that's kind of what happened. And it happened unbelievably fast. So fast that in a very British - very London kind of middle-class way, David Cameron was looking for somewhere to live last night because he was moving so fast he doesn't have somewhere to stay. So he needed to borrow a house because his kids have a couple more days of school. It's a very London obsession, not knowing where to live.

MONTAGNE: Right, not something that would happen in the White House.

RENNIE: No, no. And then there was also an obsession about who would look after the No. 10 cat. So you could feel kind of Britain reasserting itself after a bit of sort of Shakespearean drama - people worrying about where are they going to live tomorrow, and what will happen to the cat?

MONTAGNE: Well, (laughter) let's talk seriously a bit about May herself. I've actually heard her described as steely, which, of course, evokes a former female prime minister.

RENNIE: It's interesting. So people obviously - that's the obvious comparison with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. But actually, much more often, you'll see her compared to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. And that's not just about being a woman who is steely. There's some fascinating biographical kind of parallels. Her father was a Protestant minister. And she has this kind of no nonsense - she's called herself a kind of goody-two-shoes as a student at school.

But the other cool thing about her that makes her quite Merkelish (ph), apart from the fact that she's just beaten all these foolish men and got to the top, is that she isn't really an idealogue. Her - if she believes in anything, it's order and competence and getting the job done right. And also, a sense - if she believes in anything political, it's the Tory party needs to be broader. And sometimes that pushes her to interesting things, like supporting gay marriage and saying the Tory party shouldn't be the nasty party.

Sometimes when she thinks that - for example, the kind of the white working classes are very upset about immigration. In her current job, which has been in charge of immigration, it's led her to be really, really hardline. But the basic message is about pragmatic competence and trying to kind of broaden the policy. So she is quite Merkelish, I think.

MONTAGNE: And Tory party, by the way, just Conservatives. Another - is like GOP Republican - the Conservatives in charge. Now, she has said in recent days, Brexit means Brexit. She's taking a tough stand on that - no backing off, no hesitation. Now she's in charge. What's she going to do?

RENNIE: So that's right. And I think it's important because, occasionally, you see people here in America thinking, goodness, Britain has taken this decision, which looks so mad, surely they're going to reverse this, and they won't actually do it. They're not going to leave. And it is true that Theresa May, officially, was campaigning with the old prime minister, David Cameron, to stay in the EU. But she's made very clear that the British people have spoken. She's going to have to deliver a deal.

Now, whether she is more of a pragmatist - and that will help - could be very relevant because we're going to spend a couple of years, at least, arguing about how far away from the European Union Britain will end up. And that will involve trade-offs because if she wants to be at all close to the European Union - have access for British goods into those markets - then she's going to have to do some trade-offs when it comes to freedom of movement. Basically, the big immigration question - should Europeans be allowed to come to Britain freely? Who knows where she'll end up on that, but we've got a tough, steely pragmatist in charge.

MONTAGNE: And facing a very tough challenge ahead.

RENNIE: And if she backs down, her party will tear her apart.

MONTAGNE: Well, David Rennie is Washington bureau chief for The Economist. Thank you for joining us.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.