MANCHESTER - British finance minister George Osborne has emerged as a potential successor to David Cameron as head of the Conservatives amid buzz at the party's annual conference over who the favourite might be.
"He looks at the future, he does not let things like party divides prevent him from doing the right thing, he's a future leader," trainee teacher Tiffany Taylor, 23, told AFP at this week's conference.
Cameron ignited a behind-the-scenes succession race when he announced earlier this year that he would step down by 2020, before Britain's next general election is due.
Osborne, the prime minister's closest ally, is seen as his chosen successor and received an enthusiastic reception at the Conservative conference, with his speech being followed by two standing ovations.
"He always speaks to the country," said Drusilla Summers, 31, a project manager.
"He is the opposite of the impression that some people have of the Conservative party... I'm not rich, I'm not from a so-called privileged background and George Osborne understands that."
Aims to broaden appeal
This is the message that Osborne hopes to convey.
Of aristocratic descent and with a large personal fortune, Osborne has vowed to fight for the workers of Britain.
"We are now the party of work, the only true party of labour," he told the conference this week.
Osborne, 44, who has been Chancellor of the Exchequer since 2010, has made inroads into the traditional territory of the opposition Labour party with recent policy announcements, perhaps with an eye to broadening his appeal.
These include an increase of the minimum wage to £9 by 2020 for those aged over 25 from £6.50 currently and an infrastructure planning commission headed by a Labour peer.
Osborne has also spearheaded a "Northern Powerhouse" plan to boost the economies of the northern cities of England, traditional Labour strongholds that have lagged behind London.
Another bid to burnish his prime ministerial image was a five-day visit to China with a full entourage, and a personal interview with the Mail on Sunday in which he spoke about his family, his weight struggles and liking for rap music.
Polls indicate Osborne has not always been popular among the general public, and his reputation as the champion of Britain's austerity programme saw him booed by a stadium of spectators at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Looming EU referendum
Bookmakers consider Osborne to be the most likely next Conservative leader, followed by London mayor Boris Johnson, who has cultivated a rumpled and witty persona and was once seen as the likeliest successor.
"George Osborne seems like the heir to Cameron. He has the party behind him," said Conservative party member Sam Colson, 22, a student of politics at University of Bath.
"Boris seems to be the other name but apparently his star is falling somewhat recently." Osborne will also have to contend with the ambitions of the business secretary Sajid Javid and the home secretary Theresa May.
Though Johnson is seen as his closest rival, he will have to work to improve his image within the party.
"The evidence suggest that Boris Johnson is more popular with the public but that George Osborne is more popular with the Conservative Party membership and it's ultimately the membership who decides who the next leader is," said Duncan O'Leary, research director at Demos.
"He is a very very competent person but he's seen too much as a joke, a character and not statesman-like enough," said recent law graduate Oliver Carroll.
Commentators have pointed to a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union as potentially decisive on the direction of the party.
Osborne is to campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-member bloc. Johnson has not yet made clear how he will campaign, but is seen as more eurosceptic.
"Things can change quite quickly," said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London. "If the EU issue does not go the way he and Cameron want it to go, he could fall out of favour and Boris will be there."
Retired former Conservative councillor Edward Osmond, 67, said Osborne's closeness to Cameron may not be enough in the end.
"Number twos rarely make it to number one successfully," he said.