If Cameron falls, Theresa May is ready to step into the leader’s shoes

Disaffected Tories are starting to rally around a new Iron Lady

She has been caricatured as Britain’s answer to Angela Merkel. Tough, unshowy but effective – although with better taste in footwear and a rather different take on Europe.

Now senior Conservatives have started talking up the prospects of Theresa May becoming the party’s next leader if the Tories lose the next election.

While most MPs dismiss any suggestion of a coup against David Cameron before 2015, many speak privately about what might happen should the party be defeated. Most believe that in those circumstances, George Osborne could never succeed to the Tory crown and are tentatively casting around for a “stop Boris” candidate to promote.

Mrs May is a name on many MPs’ lips. The Home Secretary has impressed backbenchers and fellow ministers alike with her able handling of the tricky brief in a department known as the graveyard of ministerial careers.

She has expertly navigated the treacherous waters of police reform and extradition proceedings against Gary McKinnon (saved) and Abu Hamza (deported). On immigration her tough position delights the Tory right, while her backing of equalities legislation and long-standing criticism of the “nasty party” reassures modernisers.

There are even signs that she may be subtly positioning herself for the job. Ms May is attending a lot of “rubber chicken circuit” constituency dinners for Tory colleagues – often a sign of someone with leadership ambitions. Before Christmas she unusually sat down for a soft profile interview with Tory bible The Daily Telegraph where she talked for the first time about her husband and regrets about never having children.

Senior female MPs, including ousted Cabinet ministers Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman are quietly letting it be known that they will support her.

“She has decided that she rather wants the job and a growing number of people believe she would do it well,” said one supporter. “Theresa is tough as nails. She has quietly got on with a job. She’s not showy but she has good judgement. She’s not the new Maggie, she’s more like Angela Merkel.”

A senior backbencher who was once a critic of Mrs May said: “The left of the party loves her because she is pro gay marriage. The right loves her because she has been tough with the police and she’s tough on crime.”

A Cabinet minister says she stands her ground with the Prime Minister and Chancellor: “She doesn’t take any s**t from David and George. She can be quite short with them. She defends her corner like a tiger.”

While many Tories believe that Boris Johnson would be a natural successor to Mr Cameron, he is not widely liked within the parliamentary party.

One minister said: “The public might like Boris but they don’t know him. A lot of us worked really hard to get him re-elected as Mayor and then he repays us by undermining the Prime Minister on the economy and Europe. He’s a treacherous bastard.

“The question is: who can stop him? And I think that’s why Theresa’s name is coming up.”

If she were elected, Mrs May, 56,  would reverse the trend of ever younger Conservative leaders. The daughter of a clergyman, she read geography at Oxford, where she met her husband, Philip, a successful City figure, to whom she has been married for 32 years.

In The Daily Telegraph she spoke of her sadness at never having children: “It just didn’t happen. Things just turned out as they did. You look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don’t have.”

The Other Runners

George Osborne 1/5

Although he is the second-biggest beast in the Tory jungle, he is too closely associated with Cameron to stand much of a chance of succeeding him should the party lose the general election in 2015.

Boris Johnson 4/5

A favourite with the grass roots, Johnson successfully transcends the Tory brand. His problem is that he needs a Westminster seat before 2015 to stand as leader.

Owen Paterson 2/5

More plausible than Liam Fox as the candidate of the right, the Environment Secretary would move the Tories back to their heartland on climate change, Europe and equalities.

Michael Gove 3/5

He has ruled himself out as a future leader both publicly and privately, but he might be persuaded to stand as a modernising “stop Boris” candidate.

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