FORMER work and pensions secretary Esther McVey has announced that she will stand for the Conservative leadership when Theresa May steps down.

McVey, who quit the Cabinet in November in protest at May's Brexit deal, became the third Tory openly to declare her ambition to be Prime Minister, after Andrea Leadsom and Rory Stewart.

The staunchly Leave-backing MP's announcement came as Justice Secretary David Gauke issued a call for the party to steer away from populism, in what was seen as a bid to prevent a lurch to the right after May's departure.

Asked whether she will stand in the battle to replace May, McVey told TalkRadio: "I have always said quite clearly if I got enough support from my colleagues, yes I would.

"Now people have come forward and I have got that support, so I will be going forward."

The Tatton MP said the Conservative Party needed a leader who "believes in Brexit", and had "belief in the opportunities" it could bring.

McVey said that May's departure should be handled in a "dignified and graceful" way.

"We all know Theresa May is dutiful," she said. "She has worked for public service for many years."

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As rivals limber up for the succession battle, Gauke warned that populist policies would leave Britain poorer and more divided and put the Union at risk.

Appealing to the party to stand by the banner of One Nation Conservatism, the Justice Secretary used a speech to the Onward thinktank to call for for a politics which is civil, open-minded and forward-looking.

Although he is not often mentioned in lists of potential successors to May, Gauke's comments will be seen as an intervention in the leadership contest to come after the PM steps down, as she has said she will once the first phase of Brexit is complete.

One of the Cabinet's most prominent opponents of a no-deal Brexit, Gauke's speech is likely to be interpreted as a caution to the party not to choose a leader from among advocates of the hardest forms of EU withdrawal, like Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme ahead of his speech, he urged Tory MPs to back May, saying that removing her as PM would not change the parliamentary arithmetic on Brexit.

"I think it would be a mistake to have a change of leadership at this point," said Gauke.

When the Conservatives choose their next leader, the focus should be on "what is the role of the UK in a post-Brexit world and who is the best candidate to defeat Jeremy Corbyn", he added.