Theresa May has burnished her rightwing credentials as a candidate for the Conservative party leadership by suggesting that immigrants may be forced to pay a cash bond if they want to travel to Britain.
As ministers jostle for position amid speculation that David Cameron could face a leadership challenge this summer, the Daily Mail reported that May, the home secretary, wants to impose a bond that would be refunded if immigrants do not claim benefits.
The idea for the levy, which can be imposed on temporary immigrants under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, was floated by the prime minister in a speech in October 2011. Home Office sources told the Daily Mail the bond would be aimed at "high-risk" individuals of "two or three nationalities".
Ministers are joking about how May is "on manoeuvres" as she prepares to highlight her leadership credentials this weekend in a long-awaited speech to a conference organised by the ConservativeHome website.
Her strategy is being likened to that of Sir John Major as he positioned himself for the leadership in 1990. May will follow Major's example in making no attempt to undermine the prime minister, but will be ready should a vacancy arise.
The Guardian reported at the weekend that rebel Tories were planning to write letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, if George Osborne's budget on 20 March falls flat and if the Tories perform badly in May's local elections. If 46 Tory MPs write to Brady, Cameron will face a leadership contest.
May looked highly unamused when Labour leader Ed Miliband made light of her ambitions at prime minister's questions after he taunted Cameron for asking him questions. "All I can say is that it is good to see him preparing for opposition," Miliband said. Turning to May, he added: "The home secretary shakes her head. I am looking forward to facing her when they are in opposition."
May is being compared to Major because he was not associated with any particular wing of the party, but was assiduous in courting the right, ensuring that he won the support of Eurosceptics when Margaret Thatcher finally fell. The home secretary has followed these tactics by regularly briefing rightwing newspapers on her plans to distance Britain from the European Court of Human Rights. There is one major difference between now and 1990: Thatcher was overthrown but not replaced by Michael Heseltine. Her position was weak and Cameron's position is relatively strong, although a significant group on the right would like to replace him because they believe he is not a winner and is too wedded to coalition government.
The speculation about May follows reports that Eurosceptic Tories are to step up the pressure on Cameron by demanding that legislation to guarantee a referendum on Britain's EU membership is passed before the election. No 10 confirmed this week that there were no plans to facilitate a referendum before the general election because Liberal Democrats opposed the prime minister's plans.
But The Times reported that an early referendum was discussed at a private dinner attended by Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, and David Davis, the former shadow home secretary. The Times reported that Grayling told his fellow dinner guests to "calm down" after they discussed an early end to the coalition and a possible challenge to Cameron.
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