With just days to go until the general election campaign, David Cameron has declared that this is last time he’s leading his party into battle. It’s not clear why he felt the need to make this announcement, a tactic normally used by unpopular and besieged leaders to buy time. He says he will stand for a ‘full second term’ but won’t serve a third. His party has lots of talent, he said – a comment that all party leaders make from time to time. But what’s unusual is that Cameron actually picked out three potential successors: Theresa May, George Osborne or Boris Johnson (in that order). Which will set all kinds of hares running.
Cameron was speaking to the BBC’s James Lansdale, taunting Miliband by posing in the wonderfully-equipped kitchen of his constituency home. It was an odd interview: throughout you’re wondering: why on earth is Cameron talking about his departure? He says he’d still stay on as an MP: why share his retirement plans with us now? ‘Terms are like Shredded Wheat – two are wonderful but three might just be too many.’ Shredded Wheat? He’s asking us to return him to office for another serving of Shredded Wheat?
It looks as if it was conceived so the PM could pre-announce his departure just as Tony Blair did in 2004. But why? It looks like weakness. It took Blair seven years and a failed war to get to the stage where he felt obliged to talk about his departure.
Like Blair, Cameron’s intention seems to have been to scotch rumours that he will quit halfway through (i.e., after a 2017 EU referendum). Blair was trying to scotch rumours that he’d hand over to Brown halfway through (which, of course, he did). Here’s Blair, 11 years ago:
‘If I’m elected I would serve a third term. I do not want to serve a fourth term. I don’t think the British people want a prime minister to go on that long but I think it’s sensible to make plain my intention now.’
And here is Cameron today:
‘There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good, and the Conservative Party has got some great people coming up – the Theresa Mays, and the George Osbornes, and the Boris Johnsons. You know, there’s plenty of talent there. I’m surrounded by very good people… I’ve said I’ll stand for a full second term, but I think after that it will be time for new leadership.’
Whenever a politician says ‘as I’ve said’ it’s usually a signal that they are about to say something new and significant. It’s a signal to journalists: news alert! Stand by for a U-Turn! Most Tories had been operating on the assumption that, if Cameron wins, he’d quit after a 2017 Euro referendum. I don’t think his words today will change this calculus. But in talking about his departure, Cameron has made himself sound weak – at a time when his party is selling itself on his strong leadership. It’s an odd decision, and I fear it’s one which makes the nightmare of an Ed Miliband government a tiny bit more likely. It creates a distraction. David Cameron does a job that ought not to be compared to eating Shredded Wheat. In ruling out a third term, Cameron has diminished his chances of serving a second.
Update: And here is Michael Gove on Newsnight being drawn into Tory leadership speculation that Cameron unleashed (video, above). What a palaver. ‘How does it help you win a second term by having this discussion now?’ asked Alastair Campbell. Quite.
Update two: and here’s the front page of the Times. The campaign which starts on Friday will be the most closely-fought election in a generation – and we get this. The Times has it wrong; this is not really the starting gun for a leadership race. It’s just the sound of Cameron shooting himself in the foot.