EXCL Andrea Leadsom: Theresa May can lead the Conservatives into the next election
Theresa May can lead the Conservatives into the next general election, according to the minister who challenged her for the leadership last year.
Andrea Leadsom said Mrs May will remain Prime Minister "for as long as she wishes to do so".
But the House of Commons leader failed to deny claims that dozens of Tory MPs have urged her to make another bid for the top job in the wake of the Tories' general election disaster.
Ms Leadsom threw her hat into the ring last year after David Cameron announced he was resigning following the EU referendum.
But after winning through to the final run-off against Mrs May, she pulled out of the race, claiming it was "in the best interests of the country".
In an interview with The House magazine, Ms Leadson refused to be drawn on whether she would mount another bid to become Prime Minister, and repeatedly pledged her loyalty to Mrs May.
Asked if it was true that colleagues had encouraged her to mount another leadership challenge, she said: "I’m absolutely committed to backing Theresa May. For me, politics is about trying to do something positive to make your country and the world you live in a better place.
"And I’m absolutely convinced that the way to do this right now is to get behind Theresa May in the challenges we face as a country to make a huge success of Brexit."
Mrs May has dropped a huge hint that she does not expect to be Tory leader come the next general election, telling The Sun she only wants to remain in place "for a few more years".
But asked whether she thinks the Prime Minister could still be in post come 2022, Ms Leadson said: "I certainly think she can [lead the Tories into the next election],” she says. “For every leader, they make their decisions and I certainly think she will be leading this country for as long as she wishes to do so."
Elsewhere in the interview, Ms Leadsom also denied reports that her visit to Grenfell Tower - where she was confronted by angry local residents - had not been approved beforehand by Downing Street.
She said: "Number 10 absolutely did know that I was going. The Prime Minister was absolutely heartbroken about what happened at Grenfell. She has sought to lead the efforts to try and help those victims and I think she really couldn’t have done more to show her desire to try and help and do everything possible.
"The day before there had been an emergency briefing for MPs, and because the House wasn’t sitting it was outside of normal procedures. I sat through that briefing and it was very clear what tragic and utterly unbelievable and appalling things had taken place and how deeply upset and moved so many colleagues were across all parties.
"I asked for agreement to just go and talk to residents on behalf of my colleagues in the House and I really just wanted to go and say how incredibly sorry and moved people were. That was the purpose of the visit."