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Expert Comment: Cameron will leave office before 2020

Downing Street Wednesday 25 March 2015

As David Cameron announces that he won't be running for a third term, Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former Professor of Politics, Professor Bill Jones, looks at what it means for politics.

The political world has been stunned by Cameron's announcement that he will serve a full second term but not contest a third. Deciding whether this was a good idea depends on whether we can work out why he said it. On the plus side, it avoids the gloom inspired by Margaret Thatcher's aspiration, confided to a television interviewer after her 1987 victory, that she intended to 'go on and on'. It also confirms a widely held view that ten years as PM is about as much as either a sane person can take or voters tolerate. Michael Gove has a point when he describes the announcement as a 'statement of the bleeding obvious.' However, no senior politician makes such statements without a clear rationale, especially when they embody such clearly prepared and 'spontaneously' enunciated sound bites as: 'terms are like shredded wheat- two are wonderful but three might just be too many.' So what were his motives?

As with so many of Cameron's political initiatives, I think they are concerned with  Tory party politics. Even though Cameron appears to be a leader in complete command of his party and a PM whose popularity ratings run ahead of it, he faces determined internal critics. Right-wingers have never forgiven him for failing to beat a no hoper opponent in 2010 and for saying he is in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, albeit on renegotiated terms. He has already acknowledged that the race to succeed him is in play by name checking the most obvious aspirants: Theresa May, Osborne and Boris Johnson. It is quite possible that he is defending his back in the event of a poor election outcome in which Conservatives are not the largest party. In the chaos of post election negotiations, he might fear  his fellow MPs- 15% are needed to trigger a leadership election- might decide to make their move.

Stating he plans to leave anyway might persuade such potential assassins to re-sheave their knives. One commentator suggests Cameron fears anger at yet another electoral failure might inspire a swing to the right favouring Boris, rather than his bosom pal, George. More convincing is the possibility that he is concerned about what might happen after the 2017 referendum. If he ends up supporting the 'stay inners' after a renegotiation which cannot be other than hugely conflicted, his enemies to his right might want to terminate his stay in Downing St two years before he feels his legacy has been ensured. By making clear his imminent departure, he might hope his enemies, will wait for an orderly succession.

But such gains are only speculative: the initiative might prove negative or even,  according to Alistair Campbell, 'disastrous'. Even if his interview with James Landale does offer some post election political protection, it carries political costs. Firstly, it marks a deviation from the campaign strategy of stressing the Coalition's 'long term economic plan'.  Secondly, as the Guardian's Rafael Behr notes, it appears to bow to pressure,  have  'a whiff of capitulation' about it. He concludes that the prime minister might fall prey to the tendency, established by predecessors for being 'despised for what was once their source of appeal'. So Thatcher's resolution became arrogant refusal to budge, Blair's charm, oleaginous insincerity. 'For Cameron it is the easy way he wears power like bespoke suit. On a good day that inspires confidence; on a bad day, it reeks of entitlement.'  

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