Theresa May has declared herself “honoured and humbled” to be chosen as the new Conservative leader and promised to make a success of Brexit once she becomes prime minster.
The home secretary, who is due to move into No 10 on Wednesday, said her priorities were to provide leadership through Brexit negotiations, uniting the country and creating a positive vision of the future that gives people more control over their lives.
Speaking outside parliament, she said: “During this campaign, my case has been based on three things: first, the need for strong proven leadership to steer us through what will be difficult and uncertain economic and political times. The need to negotiate the best deal for Britain leaving the EU and to forge a new role for us in the world. Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it.
“Second, we need to unite our country, and third we need a strong new positive vision for the future of our country, a vision of a country that works not for the privileged few but works for every one of us. Because we are going to give people more control over their lives. That is how, together, we will build a better Britain.”
She set out her plans in front of Tory MPs hours after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal meant she had become the winning candidate in the Conservative leadership race. To cheers, May paid tribute to Leadsom’s dignity in pulling out and praised David Cameron’s leadership of the party since 2005.
The short speech echoed her centrist pitch to an audience in Birmingham earlier on Monday, where her campaign slogan about leading a country for everyone was a phrase apparently borrowed from former Labour leader Ed Miliband.
May spoke on Monday, shortly after Cameron said he will step down on Wednesday afternoon following prime minister’s questions.
The outgoing prime minister made a brief statement, welcoming the fact there would not be a prolonged Conservative leadership contest and saying that he felt Leadsom had made the right decision to step aside.
“It is clear that Theresa May has the overwhelming support of the Conservative parliamentary party. I’m also delighted that Theresa May will be the next prime minister,” he said.
“She is strong, she is competent, she is more than able to provide the leadership that the country needs in the years ahead. She will have my full support.”
As Cameron walked back into No 10 he was humming a tune and then said “right” as he walked back through the door.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said Cameron had met May earlier in parliament and congratulated her. The mood among Downing Street staff was described as sombre, as preparations were sped up to relocate Cameron and his family back to the home they shared before he entered government.
One Whitehall official said Cameron was a “glass half full” type of person, who had been as positive as possible after the Brexit vote. “He believes in doing right by the country, he’s a pragmatist,” said one.
Another civil servant said Cameron would be proud of achievements ranging from the economy to gay marriage. But they said he was most impressive in the way “he handled consular issues, or hostage crises” and argued that he had an ability to be emotive and understand what others were going through. “One of my biggest frustrations was all the talk of him as an Eton boy, but we saw his focus on people who didn’t have that sort of start in life,” said the source.
May will be the 76th prime minister since Sir Robert Walpole, considered to be the first holder of the office. She will also be the 13th PM during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Cameron said he would chair his final cabinet meeting on Tuesday. After taking PMQs on Wednesday, he will head to Buckingham Palace to offer his resignation.
Speaking outside No 10, Cameron said May, now the home secretary, will have entered that office by Wednesday evening.
Earlier, May’s becoming prime minister was assured after Leadsom pulled out of the leadership race, saying this was in the “best interests of the country”.
Warning that a nine-week leadership race would destabilise the country at a critical time, Leadsom said: “Business needs certainty; a strong and unified government must move quickly to set out what an independent UK’s framework for business looks like.”
Later in the day, Graham Brady, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said he had formally confirmed May as the new leader of the Conservative party, clearing the path for her to become prime minister.
May had to push through a throng of journalists to make it into the 1922 meeting. MPs thumped the desks and roared their approval as she entered the room.
Steve Baker, a leading Eurosceptic who had backed Leadsom, said afterwards it was clear that the Conservative party was united.
While saying many in the “voluntary party” were disappointed about not getting a vote, he hoped “they will understand that Andrea made a thoughtful decision”. He added hopes that May would deliver on Brexit.
May thanked Leadsom, who she said had made a tough decision to withdraw, and was handed a large bunch of blue flowers bought by key supporter Margot James and handed over by Brady. She accidentally called him “Sir Graham”, sparking laughter from MPs.
During her speech in Birmingham, May echoed several central themes from Ed Miliband’s 2015 election campaign, including reducing inequality, a crackdown on tax avoidance and tough action on corporate irresponsibility. She said she wanted to speak to the country and not just the Conservative members who would vote for her.
In the hardest-hitting passage, she said: “We need a government that will deliver serious social reform – and make ours a country that truly works for everyone. Because right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others.
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
“If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
Her comments implicitly criticise Cameron’s government for failing to do enough to deal with those areas of inequality. They also contrast with his and George Osborne’s relentless focus on the need for economic competence. “We don’t just maintain economic confidence and steer the country through challenging times, but we make sure that everyone can share in the country’s wealth,” she said.
May immediately came under pressure from opposition parties to call an early general election, something she has promised not to do.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said people deserved more than a “Tory stitch-up”. He added: “Just 13 months after the last election the Conservatives have plunged the UK into chaos. It is simply inconceivable that Theresa May should be crowned prime minister without even having won an election in her own party, let alone the country.”
Jon Trickett, Labour’s election coordinator and a shadow cabinet member, also said it now looked like “the coronation of a new Conservative prime minister”. He said. “It is crucial, given the instability caused by the Brexit vote, that the country has a democratically elected prime minister. I am now putting the whole of the party on a general election footing.”
Chris Grayling, who chaired May’s campaign, said she was “enormously honoured to have been entrusted with this task” by so many parliamentary colleagues.
He said Leadsom’s actions had shown “what a principled and decent politician she is and how willing she is to put the interests of the country before her own. She is a true public servant.” Grayling added: “Now is the time for us to unite.”
Leadsom said the support of 84 MPs was a great expression of confidence, but conceded it was not sufficient support if she were to win the ballot of Conservative members. “Strong leadership is needed immediately,” added Leadsom, praising her opponent, and adding that May would honour the result of the referendum.
Leadsom, who campaigned to leave the EU, said she believed May would act upon the wishes of the public following the Brexit vote.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th July 2016 17.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010