Whilst David Cameron’s unexpected announcement that he will not run for a third term of office is remarkably honest, it may come at a hefty price for both himself and his party.
In announcing his desire to step down when the next Parliament’s term ends in May 2020, Cameron has attempted to rise above the commonly-held perceptions of politicians. In an era of unparalleled anti-political sentiment, the Prime Minister’s ability to give a straight answer to a simple ‘yes/no’ question has been welcomed by some as a pleasant change from politicians’ usual evasiveness. Cameron also appears to be striving for a statesmanlike persona; where Margaret Thatcher wanted to “go on and on” as Prime Minister, Cameron aims to come across as the country’s humble servant, whose job of improving the country’s social and economic circumstances is currently “half-done”, and who will continue until this job is done, and not a moment longer.
This is all very valiant from the PM, and has certainly won favour from some quarters, but this declaration of intent (or lack thereof) is likely to go down as a misjudgement, raising questions which the Conservatives are not ready to answer, particularly during the throes of one of the most closely-fought election campaigns ever.
Much of other politicians’ criticisms of Cameron are centred around the timing of his comments; with just over six weeks before the general election, Labour’s Douglas Alexander, amongst others, argues that the PM has made an “arrogant” move, indicative of the fact that Cameron is focusing on his own future over the interests of the electorate that he must win over. Similarly, fellow Tories expressed concern that the announcement, and the subsequent speculation over Cameron’s potential successors, will distract voters from the party’s election campaign. It is plausible that the timing of this revelation could damage the party’s electoral standing: the Tories risk coming across as inward-looking, when their need to appeal to the wider electorate is greater than ever.
However, Cameron’s decision to announce limiting himself to two terms may be far more costly to his party, as well as his own premiership, in the long term. Should the polls on May 7 return Cameron as Prime Minister, his authority as leader will suffer. By clearly defining an end to his leadership, ‘ifs’ will become ‘whens’, and Cameron’s political rivals within the Conservative Party will become more eager to oust him, knowing he is not willing to fight for the leadership in the long term. If this were not bad enough, Cameron inexplicably highlighted three prominent Conservatives who could lead the party after his departure, in Theresa May, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. In doing so, Cameron has essentially started something of an unofficial leadership contest, which, if elected, would take place while the Conservatives govern. It begs the question: how effectively can a party remain united in government while three of its senior figures are constantly vying for power, and are seen to be doing so by the electorate?
Given the current political climate, taking Cameron at his word may prove to be ultimately fairly useless. Given the number of emotive issues at play in deciding the election, it appears unlikely that his comments alone will win or lose the election for the Conservatives. Also, predictions indicate that if Cameron stays as Prime Minister, it would likely be in a weak minority government, which would very probably collapse before Cameron’s 2020 deadline. Nonetheless, regardless of whether he stays or goes over the coming months and (potentially) years, his comments will only have undermined his authority as the leader of the Conservative Party.