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article imageUK interior minister May makes quiet progress towards No 10

By Maureen Cofflard (AFP)     Jun 28, 2016 in World

Britain's interior minister Theresa May has avoided the Conservative party in-fighting that has dominated the EU referendum campaign, making her a strong contender to replace leader David Cameron as premier when he steps down.

Despite being a long-standing eurosceptic and hardliner on immigration, May declared herself officially in favour of Britain staying in the European Union, but kept a low profile during the divisive referendum campaign.

The 59-year-old trod a fine line between remaining loyal to Prime Minster Cameron and the "Remain" campaign, while appeasing Tory core members who wanted to quit the EU and clamp down on immigration.

In a late campaign intervention, she criticised the EU's freedom of movement rules, saying: "I understand people have concerns over immigration" -- music to the ears of grassroot supporters.

However, May added that she was "in no doubt that we should Remain", highlighting the "potential risks to jobs, the uncertainties for our economy if we are to leave the EU".

According to the bookmakers, the tactic of conciliation could see her replace Cameron following his resignation in the wake of last week's seismic result.

Standing in her way is the formidable presence of "Leave" champion Boris Johnson, the charismatic former mayor of London.

The battle is now on to convince the party that it needs a unifying presence to lead the way, rather than a clique of Leave campaigners who many blame for sowing discord in the party.

- Thatcher comparisons -

According to The Sunday Times, many of the party's MPs and ministers think May is the only figure capable of uniting the warring factions.

Meanwhile, centre-right newspaper The Daily Telegraph said May's "silence speaks volumes about her leadership ambitions."

"This could all be part of Mrs May's plan to cast herself as the Brexit-friendly Remainer who can appeal to her colleagues in the Out camp with her toughness on immigration," said the paper.

"Britain may be about to vote for Brexit, and Theresa May hasn't been rushing to stop it. She won't be too upset if it does happen, as the fallout from it could clear her way for the Conservative leadership," it concluded.

She is a slight favourite with bookmakers, and also edged ahead in a poll of party members -- who will elect the new leader -- published in the Times on Tuesday.

Hopes of a more friendly campaign have already taken a hit after Johnson's allies complained that officials in the Tory government were trying to convince MPs to vote for May.

After studying at Oxford University and working briefly in the Bank of England, May's political career began when she was elected councillor in the London Borough of Merton in 1986.

She became Conservative MP for Maidenhead in Berkshire, southern England, in 1997 and became the party's first female chairman in 2002. While in opposition, May held various positions in the shadow cabinet.

Cameron promoted May to Home Secretary following his 2010 election victory, a role she kept after his re-election in 2015.

Over her six years in the role, May has built a reputation for taking a firm line on Islamic preachers and also came out in support of gay marriage.

May's stern demeanour and wardrobe of austere suits has drawn comparisons to party heroine Margaret Thatcher.

She has been married to banker Philip May since 1980, and the couple have no children. May lists her hobbies as walking and cooking.

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