A Conservative peer and former chief executive of the broadband giant TalkTalk is a leading candidate to be appointed as chair of NHS Improvement, HSJ has learned.

Dido Harding left TalkTalk in May, having said she wanted to concentrate on “more activities in public service”.

HSJ understands Baroness Harding is on the candidates list for the role and seen as a strong contender. A final decision has not yet been made by health minister Philip Dunne, who is expected to meet several shortlisted candidates.

If put forward as the preferred candidate by the Department of Health, Baroness Harding would appear before the Commons health select committee for a pre-appointment hearing.

Ed Smith, current NHS Improvement chair, is expected to step down shortly. The organisation’s chief executive Jim Mackey is due to return to his substantive role as a foundation trust chief executive in the autumn.

Baroness Harding, who sits in the Lords as a Conservative peer, faced criticism over her response to a major cyber-attack on TalkTalk in October 2015 which saw four million customers’ data accessed by hackers. She resigned 18 months later.

Her husband is John Penrose, Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare and a former minister. She is the daughter of Lord Harding and the granddaughter of Field Marshal John Harding who commanded the Desert Rats in World War Two. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, where she studied alongside former prime minister David Cameron.

Baroness Harding has also worked for management consultancy McKinsey & Co and held senior roles at Thomas Cook, Woolworths, Tesco and Sainsbury’s before being named chief executive at TalkTalk in 2010. She is a non-executive director at the Bank of England.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “A recruitment process for the new chair of NHS Improvement is currently underway. No decision has been made and we will not comment on speculation about the outcome.”