Published: Tuesday 24th March 2015 by The News Editor
David Cameron faced Labour claims of arrogance after declaring that he would not seek a third term in office just weeks before voters go to the polls in a general election that will decide if he gets a second.
Allies of the Prime Minister said voters would appreciate his “honest” reply to a question in a BBC interview about his future as leader and played it down as “a statement of the bleeding obvious”.
But critics suggested that by naming potential successors he risked Tory leadership speculation overshadowing the election campaign and political opponents accused him of taking the electorate for granted.
And there remained confusion over the exact terms of his proposed departure, notably around whether or not he intended to lead the party into the 2020 general election.
Interviewed in his kitchen as part of series of profiles of the private sides of party leaders, Mr Cameron said: “I’ve said I’ll stand for a full second term.
“But I think after that it will be time for new leadership. Terms are like Shredded Wheat – two are wonderful but three might just be too many.”
He added: “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. The third term is not something I’m contemplating.”
Labour campaign chief Douglas Alexander said the Tories were “taking the British public for granted” and a Liberal Democrat spokesman said Mr Cameron was being “incredibly presumptuous” and “agonising over his own long-term legacy” rather than the impact of spending cuts.
“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,” Mr Alexander said.
Of those tipped as potential replacements by Mr Cameron, only Mr Johnson – whose decision to seek re-election to the Commons on May 7 had already fuelled talk of his ambitions for the top job – responded directly.
He said the reaction to the PM’s position was “a fuss about nothing” and that another five years of Mr Cameron in Downing Street was “exactly what we need”.
“What the Prime Minister is saying is that he is going to serve on as Prime Minister and leader of this country until 2020, which is, by the way, exactly what we need to entrench the great economic recovery that we are seeing and ensure the future of … the whole of the UK.
“Five years is a very long time, and I’m sure he’ll do a fantastic job in that period.”
Asked it was flattering to be named by Mr Cameron as a potential successor, he responded: “The next leader of the Tory party is probably a babe unborn.”
Downing Street sources insisted that Mr Cameron was “clear that we need to win the election in 2015 first” and insisted no decision had been made on whether he would fight another election or hand over to a successor before the poll.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” they said.
In the interview, Mr Cameron had been directly asked if he would “go for a third term” if he remained PM after the election.
He replied: “No, I think I’m standing for a full second term.”
The declaration caused surprise in Westminster, where Tony Blair’s 2004 announcement that he would stand down before the end of a third term was widely seem as one of his biggest political mistakes.
The move did not end pressure on Mr Blair to announce the exact date of his departure, and he was eventually forced out earlier than planned.
It also raised some eyebrows in Westminster, where some had expected Mr Cameron to be forced to bring a close to his premiership following his planned 2017 referendum on EU membership, whatever the result.
Tory chief whip Michael Gove appeared to rule out Mr Cameron fighting the 2020 election and suggested the introduction of fixed-term parliaments had opened the way to a more US-style approach.
Asked if Mr Cameron would “stand and run” in 2020, Mr Gove told BBC2’s Newsnight: “No, because he is going to be Prime Minister for five years in the next term.
“If you were having a presidential election in the United States of America and you had had a president who had had one successful term, it would be natural for that president to seek a second term in order to finish the job and then stand down and hand on to a talented successor.
“So the Prime Minister, when asked a direct question, gave an honest reply, and an honest reply which actually reflects the new political reality of a world of fixed-term parliaments.”
“The plan is to make sure that we have David Cameron running this country for the next five years and to make sure that we have a choice at the election after that between whoever the Conservative leader is and whoever the Conservative leader is.”
Asked if the announcement was planned, Mr Gove told the programme: “As far as I was concerned, it was a statement of the bleeding obvious. I wasn’t surprised by the Prime Minister saying it.”
And he sought to present it as a positive for the party at the general election.
“One of the reasons that it will help us win is that it reinforces in everyone’s mind the fact that we have, as our Prime Minister, a normal, sane, decent guy who is in politics for the right reasons, who when he is asked a direct question gives and honest answer and when he seeks public office does it because he wants to finish the job to make sure our economic recovery is sustained.
“He is not in it for glory, ego or wealth; he is in it because he believes that has another five years to give and he has seen other leaders – including Tony Blair sadly – cling into office too long and spoil the early promise.”
It contrasted with predecessors – including Margaret Thatcher – “whom you’ve had to prise out of Downing Street, their fingernails there in the door jamb”, he added.
Alastair Campbell, who was Mr Blair’s director of communications, said it was a “potential disaster” for the Tories.
He said he struggled to understand why Mr Cameron had said it despite being “under no pressure at all” to do so – unlike Mr Blair who “didn’t really have much choice” but to appease Mr Brown ahead of the 2005 campaign.
“At this stage of a campaign, five and a bit weeks away from a general election. every single person, but particularly the leaders, has to be focused in everything they say and do on winning,” he told Newsnight.
“He has created a massive distraction. I think it is a potential disaster for them.
“I think he has opened up something that he will find very difficult now to close.”
Published: Tuesday 24th March 2015 by The News Editor