For a few days last autumn, Theresa May came within sight of the ultimate promotion. On 6 September, 12 days before the referendum on Scottish independence, a surprise poll putting the yes camp ahead by two points triggered sudden panic at Westminster. Secretly, Conservative MPs began discussing the options for replacing the prime minister if the United Kingdom were to break apart.
“People who were capable of thinking two steps ahead were saying, ‘OK, if Scotland leaves the union, does David Cameron have to go?’” said a senior backbencher. “To which the answer was, ‘Yes.’ But you can’t have a full-on leadership election eight months before an election. It has to be a coronation.”
There was a precedent for a bloodless coup. Back in 2003, Michael Howard replaced his exhausted predecessor Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader essentially by unanimous agreement, sparing the party its third leadership contest in six years. The obvious choice this time, William Hague, was shortly to retire. “The next thought was, ‘It’s got to be Theresa,’” said the backbencher. “She could do the job. She has enemies, but not like George [Osborne] … She’d take charge going into the election, and perhaps she’d win and do five years.” Another MP close to a rival leadership candidate confirmed that, with Boris Johnson still outside parliament, “Theresa at that point would have had a good chance of becoming prime minister. And still might.”
The tide in Scotland turned so quickly that things never progressed beyond early conversations between backbenchers and former ministers. Those closest to May deny knowing anything about it until after the moment passed, although rumours of unrest certainly reached Cameron. But had 200,000 Scots voted differently, it is possible that the longest serving home secretary in half a century would now be in No 10.