Theresa May put down her marker for the Conservative leadership by protesting against the attempt by fellow Tory MPs to rob rank-and-file party members of their right to choose the next party leader.
She wrote to the party leadership yesterday objecting to the move to strip ordinary party members of their vote in the leadership election and warned that the Tory MPs' attempt to take back the power to elect the leader risked causing a rift in the party.
Mrs May, who refused to rule herself out of the leadership race, could benefit if the party rejects the MPs views, which have yet to be ratified by the Tory convention. She could not hope to win among the "men in suits" if the vote for the next leader was limited to the male-dominated party in the Commons but she would stand a chance if the members in the country retained their vote.
The former Conservative Party chairman is well known on the Tory "rubber chicken" circuit and was well-liked among constituency party members, in spite of her notorious warning that the Conservatives were seen as the "nasty party". A woman candidate running against uninspiring men could have an appeal for the many women in the party who still revere Margaret Thatcher
Speaking to The Independent, Mrs May denied her objections to the change in the voting system for the leader had anything to do with her own ambitions.
"I really believe if we don't look outward as a party, we risk being out of office for another 10 years," she said. "Although it's about the leadership election, it is symbolic, and the signal it gives is that we are more concerned that MPs cannot even trust their own members."
She added: "If we end up with the election by MPs at Westminster, it feeds into the stereotype of the Conservative Party. It is about whether we are inward-looking."
Mrs May and Mr Howard were among only four Tory MPs who supported allowing party members a vote in the election of the leader at a recent meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. She also supported an electoral college.
In a letter to the chairman of the Tory national convention, Raymond Monbiot, she urged the Conservative Party board to reject the Tory MPs' views. "I would implore the board to stand firm in putting forward proposals that actively involve party members."
She said giving the vote over the leadership back to MPs would "not only be a damaging step backwards but excluding the voluntary party and other elected representatives risks alienating the Parliamentary Party from grassroots workers. We must not allow this decision to cause a rift between different sections of the party or risk causing resentment and division at a time when the party is at its most united for a decade."
Some Conservative MPs laughed off Mrs May's ambitions. One right-wing male backbencher said: "You must be joking. There are only two candidates in the contest - David Davis and David Cameron. They should stop messing around and get on with it now."
Mrs May, 49, arrived in the Commons as the MP for Maidenhead eight years ago and has occupied a succession of frontbench posts.
At the last general election she fought off a strong Liberal Democrat challenge to increase her majority from 3,284 to 6,231.Reuse content