Theresa May is the In campaign’s secret weapon to win over eurosceptics and will be given an enhanced role in the final two months of the referendum, leading pro-EU strategists have said.
Senior figures in the Remain campaign believe the Home Secretary’s record in tackling crime and terrorism gives her an unparalleled position to deliver warnings over Britain’s security.
Strategists also believe her Eurosceptic credentials – having never been part of the pro-EU “starry-eyed brigade” – leave her well placed to woo undecided Conservatives.
Mrs May, who has played a backseat role since the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package was revealed in February, is expected to make a major intervention on security in the coming weeks.
However critics will see the move as a reaction to concerns David Cameron’s public appeal has been damaged by revelations about his tax affairs and a string of government blunders.
Recent polls have showed the Prime Minister’s poll ratings dropping to below Jeremy Corbyn’s for the first time, damaging his ability to sway voters.
A greater involvement would be a personal risk for Mrs May, who toyed with backing Brexit and only committed to In vote days before the renegotiation deal was announced.
With polls suggested two thirds of Tory members will vote for Brexit her leadership ambitions could take hit by becoming too closely associated with the pro-EU side.
Speaking to The Telegraph, a string of senior figures in the In campaign said Mrs May held the key to winning over wavering eurosceptics.
“Theresa will have a higher profile as the campaign goes on. She’s the one with the greatest credibility by far on the security agenda in terms of police and judicial co-operation, intelligence sharing,” said one senior government figure.
“She carries credibility because she is seen, both inside and outside the bubble, as somebody who is in essence serious and who has not been in the Ken Clarke starry-eyed brigade at any stage.”
Mrs May’s tenure in the Home Office – she has lasted longer than any predecessor in 50 years – and success at bringing down crime rates during the Coalition are quoted in her favour.
So too is her credibility on security, with recent terror arrests in Britain following attacks in Paris and Brussels a reminder of the danger Jihadists pose Europe.
A senior Remain campaign source said: “I don’t think anyone can accuse Theresa May of being a unrefined Europhile.
“The combination of the fact she’s Home Secretary and knows what she’s talking about when it comes to immigration, security and cross-border crime mean there are few people better qualified to talk about these things. … She’s certainly going to have a central role.”
Figures from all three main wings of the pro-EU campaign – the government, the cross-party Britain Stronger In Europe group and Labour – are all understood to want Mrs May to play a greater role.
However Eurosceptics are ready to rubbish her record on immigration – which has seen a Tory manifesto pledge to get net migration below 100,000 missed – to discredit her message.
They are also ready to bring up a hard-line speech on topic made to Tory conference last year, seen as a pitch to the party’s right, to prove the inconsistency of supporting EU membership.
“It is extremely high risk of Theresa May to get involved in this,” said a leading Tory Eurosceptic.
“It is inevitable the moment she speaks we will counter everything she says. We will go back to the migration speech and show how ridiculous it is she wants to the leave the EU.”
The MP warned: “Two thirds of the party are with us for Leave. Anyone who wants to have a serious chance of winning members’ votes for the leadership must favour Brexit.”