She might be a political blank sheet but May is the bookmakers’ 4/1 favourite to succeed Cameron, ahead of Boris Johnson. While Johnson paints on a broad canvas, May offers to join up the dots. But if she is to seize the crown, May knows she has to build her base in the House of Commons. Downing Street has clocked the fact that she is stepping up her contact with MPs, including launching a series of “meet Theresa” surgeries in the Commons tea room and working the “rubber chicken circuit” of constituency dinners. May’s contacts with journalists are also increasing: this month she drank wine with female lobby correspondents in the press bar, jokingly wagging a finger at any male journalist with the temerity to enter the room.
“The question is whether she’ll get out of the Commons,” says one cabinet minister, noting that it is MPs who decide which two candidates are put to the party membership in a leadership contest. Osborne has control of the party machine and Tory MPs note that May has no “troops”, beyond a handful of former women ministers, and needs to reach out to the right. But one says: “That’s not insurmountable: people will back her if she looks like a winner.”
Certainly she is respected by her political opponents. “She’s a real grown-up, very, very impressive – she’s the one,” says one member of the Labour opposition top team. Keith Vaz says: “She reminds me a lot of Angela Merkel. Angela Merkel was in the beginning thought of as quite boring, and now everyone is saying what a great gal she is.”
Is May preparing for a leadership bid if the Tories lose the 2015 general election? Cameron, Osborne and Johnson will be watching her every move, hoping for some clue to her intentions, her plan. One cabinet minister close to Cameron says: “I admire her but one day she will have to let us know who she is.” Or will she?