It is always useful to remember Robert Conquest’s suggestion that The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
No, I don’t know why David Cameron would amputate his authority before he runs for re-election either. But that’s what he has done today by ruling out running for a third term in office. I dare say it was an honest – and spontaneous – answer to a simple question. But still: what a bizarre thing to do, not least because no-one expected him to run again in 2020 even if, by some good fortune, he returns to Downing Street on May 8th.
But there is every difference between common knowledge inside the village and broadcasting that knowledge to the wider world. Authority and credibility are all-too-easily bandied-about but they have some importance not least because perceptions of these qualities have some considerable impact on the overall manner in which a politician is perceived. If you doubt this, look at Ed Miliband.
Cameron, today, has started the race to be his successor. True, that race might yet begin on May 8th but the Tories were always likely to need a new leader if Cameron is defeated in May. They didn’t need the leadership question to begin as soon as they had won a second term, however.
But it has. Needlessly. How long will you remain in office, Mr Cameron? When do you plan on resigning? These are questions from which there is no escape. The clock is ticking. The countdown has started and once begun it cannot be stopped. There is no blue wire that can be cut to prevent the explosion.
I know people like to complain that the press have an unhealthy fascination with these games of personality and process at the expense of policy and I dare say there’s some truth to that. (Personality and process are more fun than policy). But there’s no need for politicians to ask us to play these games in the first place. That’s what Cameron has done, however.
Who’s up? Who’s down? Who is on manoeuvres? Everything (well, almost everything) half a dozen senior Tories (May, Osborne, Boris et al) do in the first three years of the next parliament will be viewed through the prism of the succession.
That’s bad enough but it’s really quite something to declare yourself a lame duck before an election. It also allows Labour to argue Vote Dave, Get George or Vote Dave, Get Boris.
There’s one other thing too: declaring you won’t seek a third term risks seeming awkwardly presumptious before you’ve even won your second. Risks? Nay, ’tis. Another reason why this is a baffling declaration.
Perhaps it really is the case that no-one actually wants to win the next election.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.