Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Or rather, the women: for it seems you wait three decades for another plausible female prime minister, only for two to arrive at once.
When Theresa May and Yvette Cooper locked horns last week over immigration, it felt oddly like a portent of what may be to come. They are radically different characters: Cooper warm and self-deprecating, May more reserved and a little chilly. But both have matured into formidable enough politicians that it no longer seems far-fetched to envisage them clashing over a prime-ministerial despatch box. And after so many years of being treated as outsiders at Westminster, suddenly the time feels right for female politicians.
There's much to be said for not being just another man in a pinstriped suit, in an age of contempt for conventional politicians. May and Cooper, the vicar's daughter and the former special adviser, are hardly anti-establishment rebels, but somehow their sex means they are not quite classed as part of a discredited elite either.
"People do seem to think that women must get it, they must be a bit more normal. Women get a pass on some of the 'politicians are all evil' stuff," says a former Labour minister, who argues that female candidates now hold a tangible advantage in byelections. They are, she thinks, seen as more trustworthy, less tarnished: hard to imagine May or Cooper groping candidates or palming off their speeding points.
"I think there's something interesting about women in this atmosphere, with men blamed for ruining their own lives, making inappropriate passes, all that," confirms a Tory backbencher who knows May well. "Women make different mistakes but they don't often make the mistakes of predatory sexual behaviour. And Theresa's not going to be starstruck by people with a lot of money."
The intriguing question is whether British politics has hit a "glass cliff" moment – the phenomenon whereby companies pick female chief executives only when they are in deep trouble, and subconsciously open to trying something different. Female leaders often emerge in countries in crisis, from Iceland after the banking crash, to Argentina. Is Britain now experiencing something similar? And if so, can these two seize the moment?
Theresa May is perhaps the most maddeningly inscrutable Conservative in politics today. Her speech last weekend to ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 conference, outlining bold thinking on everything from the economy (complete with a growth strategy she prepared earlier) to privatisation, offered the first real hint of where she might take the country if she ever had the chance. But while few Tory MPs now doubt she covets the leadership, most have no idea what she would actually do with it.
What, exactly, does May stand for? She was a moderniser before David Cameron was even an MP, yet morphed into a traditionally rightwing home secretary. Once dismissed as over-promoted, she has sturdily weathered scandals from border control chaos to her much-ridiculed claim that an illegal immigrant avoided deportation because of his cat. And intriguingly, she has succeeded on her own terms: she defies both conventional wisdom that home secretaries must be media-friendly "big beasts", and the unspoken rule that Tory women avoid the "F-word". Theresa May is an unabashed feminist.
The influential ConservativeHome website calls her "Britain's Merkel", after the German chancellor, a serious-minded woman for serious times. "I like her quiet competence, her lack of froth," says Tim Montgomerie, the site's founder. He sees a "good person" at heart, capable of rare thoughtfulness and loyalty.
Not everyone, however, buys it. "I've known Theresa for 15 years and my impressions of her are … nothing," says one MP close to a leadership rival. "There's no emotion there. Nobody really knows her. And if you want to be leader you've got to have a personality."
The old jibe that her shoes are the most interesting thing about her is horribly unfair, but people fixate on them still because they symbolise a promise that's never quite delivered. Leopard-print kitten heels beneath a sober suit suggest a defiant, unconventional streak somewhere: but boy, does she keep it hidden.
Yet May can be fearlessly stubborn over things that matter to her, as the chancellor is discovering in trying to cut her budget. And for one accused of lacking a grand vision, she has a surprisingly strong claim to have helped make her party what it is today.
The "A list" scheme for selecting more female and non-traditional candidates, which she battled ferociously to introduce, has transformed the Tories' 2010 intake and changed the dynamics of this parliament. Ten years on, the speech in which she bluntly told her tribe they couldn't win as the "nasty party" remains the iconic moment of Tory modernisation, braver than hugging huskies: she defied her then leader Iain Duncan Smith and her own aides' advice to do it.
"She was right then, and she's right now," recalls a former party staffer. "But the media saw it as a complete stab in the heart for everything the Conservative party stands for." A brutal year ensued, as rightwing newspapers eviscerated her and pensioners tore up party membership cards in front of her. But, says a longstanding friend: "It definitely toughened her up."
Certainly, the old joke about her indecisiveness – "Theresa May, or she may not" – no longer fits. She wields clout in cabinet, manages the Commons with steely relish. She doesn't do small talk – not for her the cosy personal anecdotes politicians tell to soften their images – and has few close friends in politics. "She's cool, and that counters people's expectations of what they think a leading politician should be," observes a Tory backbencher. "But I have confidence in her. I trust that if she's given something to do, she won't cock it up."
So far her embryonic campaign consists mainly of old friends – said to include ex-cabinet ministers Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman – gently reminding people of her existence. Rival camps suspect she was spooked into making a speech after realising events may be moving faster than expected. But she has yet to find an answer to her biggest problem: Boris Johnson.
His flaws are only too well known to Tory MPs, but the mayor remains the only candidate likely on current polling to boost Conservative vote share – and thus save their skins – if he were leader. In any contest held before 2015, that will overwhelmingly be what counts.
May's best hope is probably delaying the contest for long enough that she can put in some intensive spadework with MPs, something Boris notoriously doesn't bother doing. "He spends his free time doing what he wants," observes one staffer who knows both well. "Politicians like Theresa spend their time doing what everyone else wants them to do."
She is, says one grateful A-lister, "the patron saint" of female backbenchers, always ready with advice: she holds weekly surgeries for MPs, tirelessly attends constituency dinners. Her husband Philip, a senior City figure, also networks hard for her. "People like spending time with him, which does nothing but good for her," says a friend. Having never had children, she's free to work punishingly long hours.
Her current pitch on curbing immigration and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights seems odd for an arch-moderniser, but friends insist it's less cynical than it looks.
"The thing about Theresa is she's not as posh as the rest of them," says a former aide. "She's more in touch with the people she's meeting in surgeries: my bet is she's thinking, 'What fool wouldn't address this?'" Her speech was carefully pitched at blue-collar Tories on tight incomes, feeling neglected by a cabinet of millionaires and tempted by Ukip. Andy Coulson, the ex-tabloid editor turned Downing St Spinner, always rated her ability to reach his old readers.
But the next election won't be won by merely wooing back Ukip defectors, which means the real battle looming is with May's Labour opposite number.
It is a backhanded compliment to Yvette Cooper, in a way, that the Treasury will host a pre-Budget party this week to mend fences with women. More than anyone else, she has articulated a female anger over the recession, which ministers are now scrabbling to defuse.
As shadow women's minister she has embarrassed the coalition by painstakingly analysing how women suffer disproportionately more from spending cuts because they are disproportionately poor. By chipping away on female unemployment rates and maternity pay cuts, she gave austerity a recognisably female face.
"If you look at the difference between what women and men think about this government, women started off thinking about the same as men and they are now incredibly hostile towards government," says a senior Labour backbencher. "That is basically to Yvette's credit." Without an economic brief, she has somehow become central to the economic argument that dominates contemporary politics. Now in her other role as shadow home secretary, she's tackling Westminster's second hottest topic: immigration.
Last week's threat to restrict access to benefits for newcomers was the sort of populist rightwing idea for which Blairite colleagues get pilloried, but somehow Cooper pitched it just this side of shrill. Even colleagues who loathe what they see as pandering to the right aren't yet criticising her out loud. The Tory benches are rattled, wondering aloud what it all means.
"I always thought Yvette was the brightest talent on the Labour frontbench," says Louise Mensch, the ex-Tory MP turned columnist, who has long had Cooper on her list of women to watch. "I was personally glad she didn't stand for the leadership, because I think she'd have been unbeatable."
Yet when Cooper refused to run in 2010 because her children were still small, conventional wisdom suggested she had made herself look fatally weak. Privately, some Labour women expressed irritation that she had somehow let the side down.
Her position has, however, if anything strengthened since. She topped the shadow cabinet elections ballot, and MPs note that by 2015, two of her three children with shadow chancellor Ed Balls will be teenagers. Might that be her moment?
One friend says she's "still not completely sure Yvette really wants to be leader": she remains determined not to compromise family life. But suspicion certainly lingers in the leader's circle, with occasional petty skirmishes over limiting her influence. She keeps up useful friendships, has worked hard on developing a more relaxed public manner, and is one of few in the old Brownite camp to make friends on the Labour right. She would be the one to beat, were Ed Miliband to fall under a bus tomorrow.
But with Labour now riding high in the polls, the chances of that happening are shrinking. With every passing year, it becomes more likely that Cooper's generation will be leapfrogged, leaving someone else – Rachel Reeves? Stella Creasy? – to step into the breach.
But whatever happens to their own careers, both May and Cooper have arguably changed the terms of trade for younger women by showing that female politicians don't always have to compete on male terms. Margaret Thatcher, who once crowed that "I owe nothing to women's lib", famously triumphed despite her gender. The next woman leader may well do so because of hers.
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image: © Matthew Rutledge