“TODAY’S event is all about choice of leadership,” Home Secretary Theresa May said with a twinkle in her eye as she opened the ConHome conference on Saturday before adding “...between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.”
Everybody knew exactly what she meant and the only thing it had to do with the 2015 election was who might lead the Conservative Party in it. But how is it that a politician more famous for her shoes has become, for some, the next leader? Is it really “May day” for the Tories?
There is no doubt David Cameron’s position is now extremely vulnerable. The backbench rebellions over Lords reform, gay marriage and Europe in the Commons show they don’t respect or fear him. Worse still, the Tory backbenchers think Cameron is a loser. His modernisation failed to deliver a majority in 2010, and the latest poll from Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire no longer backing the party, suggests Labour would have a majority of 84 seats in 2015.
In this maelstrom of Tory angst, plots are no longer merely whispered about. Two stalking horse candidates are being discussed openly – Windsor MP Adam Afriyie and former children’s minister Tim Loughton. But MPs want somebody who can be a real leader.
The heavyweight candidates have fallen by the wayside or are unavailable. London Mayor Boris Johnson is not an MP. George Osborne lost credibility after his disastrous Budget last year. Former defence secretary Liam Fox is overshadowed by alleged scandal. Iain Duncan Smith was leader and hated it. Ken Clarke is too old and too pro-Europe.
From this diminishing field, Mrs May has suddenly become a leading candidate. The 56-year-old was one of the few new Tory MPs in the 1997 disaster and by 2002 was party chairman. In that role she famously said the Tories needed to stop being “the nasty party”. Others have come and gone, Mrs May is a survivor – even of the Home Office which is notorious for wrecking, not building, careers.
If the contest were tomorrow, she would be up against the defence secretary Philip Hammond, who in the last week has also emerged as a surprise candidate. He is highly respected and competent but lacks charisma.
The third is a Scot, the education secretary Michael Gove who has been courting the rightwing of the party, pushing a hard line on Europe in anticipation of a leadership bid, for months now. He is many people’s favourite but far from being a shoo-in.
If the Tories have a sense of history then May could be their choice. In 1975 Margaret Thatcher was seen as a lightweight who was no better than a stalking horse against Ted Heath to open the leadership route for a male colleague. While it is hard to imagine May coming even close to the towering political figure Thatcher became, she is a personable figure who is greatly under-estimated. And, like the Iron Lady, she could surprise a lot of people.