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.

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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 vacates No 10.

Asked whether she will stand in the battle to replace May, McVey said: “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.”

As rivals limber up for the succession battle, Gauke warned that populist policies would leave the UK poorer and more divided – putting 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 think tank 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 – which she has vowed to do once the first phase of Brexit is complete.

The speech by Gauke, one of the Cabinet’s most prominent opponents of a no-deal Brexit, 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.

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.

Gauke said that the arguments of some Brexiteers have been “characterised by wishful thinking” which he claimed has “not survived the collision with reality”.

He insisted that voters were angry that Brexit had been delayed and the frustration was fuelled by some Leave supporters’ over-simplification of the difficulties involved. Gauke argued that the Government must put the economy at the heart of its Brexit strategy, discouraging a “culture war” over relations with Europe.

He insisted that Margaret Thatcher led her party and her country by confronting populism, not embracing it.

Populist politics would “make us a poorer and a more divided nation” and fail to satisfy voters who feel disillusioned by the current system, he said.

Gauke continued: “Conservatism should be broad, not narrow; open, not closed; forward-looking, not yearning for a mythical past.

“It should be based on an appeal to the common-sense, pragmatic instincts of the majority. We should seek to unite, not divide. One nation conservatism.

“Pragmatic, practical, reasonable but determined. That is the character of the British people. That is the character of conservatism at its best.”

Calling for a de-escalation of the “culture wars” which have raged since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Gauke said the Tories should promote civil debate and mainstream politics.

And he said the party must be ready to be open with voters about the need for trade-offs and the fact that “an easy, simple answer is often the wrong one”.

Gauke warned against “sneering” at those rallying behind populist calls for a swift and “clean” break from Europe.

He said Conservatives should not follow failed US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in dismissing people as “deplorables”.