In interviews with the Standard, Margaret Thatcher’s election-winning former chairman Lord Tebbit warned that going to the country early could backfire with voters who wanted Westminster to “get on with the job”.
Grant Shapps, who chaired the party at the 2015 election, warned that if rumours continued to mount, Mrs May could suffer the fate of Gordon Brown, who was accused of “bottling it” in 2007.
A third former party chair, Baroness Warsi, simply said: “I would say No.”
The warnings came after days of feverish chatter at Westminster and reports that all the main parties are making contingency plans for election campaigns.
Downing Street has consistently said that Mrs May was against holding an election before 2020 - the date currently set by law - but has stopped short of firmly ruling one out.
Asked three times to rule out the possibility this morning, a senior No 10 spokeswoman replied with the same stock answer: “The Prime Minister does not think there should be an early general election.”
The phraseology leaves wriggle room for Mrs May to change her mind and argue that she was forced to bring forward an election by opponents, such as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who last week questioned the PM’s mandate to govern.
However, Lord Tebbit said: “I think it could cause more trouble than she wants. I would not be advising her to take that risk.” He said that under the law, Tory MPs would have to back a vote of no confidence in the Government to force an election. He also said voters had become less predictable, adding: “Electorates tend to say, ‘For goodness sake, get on with the job.’”
Mr Shapps said: “She needs to make clear now that she will not do it. What she is in danger of is a 2007 situation, where Gordon Brown let the story run on that he was testing the water.”
Labour’s election co-ordinator Andrew Gwynne said the party was on a “war footing” in case of a May 4 polling day.
Tory sources last night confirmed that discussions about an early election took place between her parliamentary aide George Hollingbery, Tory chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin and chief whip Gavin Williamson.
Some MPs believe Mrs May could announce an early election next week when she triggers Article 50, beginning the Brexit process.