By pledging not to serve a third term as prime minister, David Cameron has made one of the biggest strategic errors of his premiership. A week before the start of the general election campaign, with the Tories still trailing in most polls, the seeming presumption that he will win a second is extraordinary. It smacks of taking the voters for granted, of measuring the curtains in Downing Street for another five years.
There are few Conservative MPs who believe that Cameron will survive as prime minister until 2020 if they form the next government. The aftermath of the EU referendum scheduled for 2017 is often cited as a natural moment for him to depart. Aware of this, Cameron also used his interview with the BBC to declare that he was “standing for a full second term” (though this falls short of “would serve”). In doing so, he has failed to learn from Tony Blair’s mistake. In 2004, the Labour prime minister pledged not to serve a fourth term in the hope of securing a full third term. The results are well-known. By turning himself into a lame duck leader, he hastened the end of his premiership, making himself easy prey for recalcitrant MPs in the summer of 2006.
Not only has Cameron repeated this error, he has simultaneously launched the next Conservative leadership election by naming Theresa May, Boris Johnson and George Osborne (a sign that his great friend has not relinquished his ambitions) as possible successors. Tory MPs have been given an open invitation to oust him after he inevitably disappoints them. The PM would be wise to watch those would-be leaders he failed to name (Sajid Javid, Liam Fox, Philip Hammond, Owen Paterson) particularly closely.
It’s possible, of course, that Cameron doesn’t want to serve a full second term. But if so, why tell the voters now? (Not least since he consistently outpolls his party.) For a man supposedly devoted to the message discipline instilled by Lynton Crosby, Cameron has shown remarkable indiscipline this evening. Whether before or after election day, he will come to rue this error.
Update: Labour’s Douglas Alexander has responded, as expected, by accusing Cameron of “taking the British public for granted”. He added: “It is typically arrogant of David Cameron to presume a third Tory term in 2020 before the British public have been given the chance to have their say in this election. In the UK it is for the British people and not the Prime Minister to decide who stays in power.
“Instead of focusing on themselves, it is time we had a Government focussed on the needs of working families. Another term of this Government would mean working people worse off and the NHS under threat because of their extreme spending plans. We need a better plan for a better future. We need a Labour government.”