#GE2016: Has Cameron given up?

Alex Mitchell
Latest posts by Alex Mitchell (see all)

Over the weekend Prime Minister David Cameron said in a BBC interview that he would not seek a third term in office.

Critics have labelled these comments presumptive and arrogant, considering he hasn’t yet secured a second term nor do the polls indicate he is set for a comfortable victory – if at all. Having pointed to potential successors in Home Secretary Theresa May, Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, Cameron may well have designated his second term as a lame duck government. With fixed term parliaments, the countdown on Cameron’s Premiership would start the day after Election Day.

This follows on from Cameron dragging his feet on the televised election debates. After the networks made their proposals – which included for the first time Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP – Cameron said he would not take part in a debate unless the Greens, led by Natalie Bennett, were also included.

This is a move political pundits claim is an attempt to apply pressure on Labour and the political left, as UKIP would do to the Conservatives on the right. A smart move in theory, as the Lib Dems aren’t doing well in the polls nor have they in previous elections throughout this Parliament. They aren’t likely to be providing a challenge to the left.

The broadcasters agreed to include the Greens alongside UKIP in at least one debate of the proposed three, however the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), led by Nicola Sturgeon, challenged their exclusion from the debate – a challenge picked up by Cameron.

Once again this was meant to hinder the political left, as the SNP looks set to nearly wipe out Labour and the Lib Dems from Scotland and thus increase the Conservatives’ chances of being the largest party in the House of Commons after the election.

Once again the broadcasters accommodated the SNP and Plaid Cymru of Wales led by Leanne Wood. Thus seven parties would be represented in the one debate with Cameron, the second with Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, and the final head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband.

Once again Cameron protested against this, saying that he wanted one debate with the seven leaders and the potential for the DUP and Sinn Fein of Northern Ireland to partake. This debate would take place before the election campaign got under way. This last move doesn’t have such a clear political tactic behind it, and has left Cameron looking chicken.

The economy is out of recession with the Tories batting the phrase ‘long-term economic plan’ around as if they were paid every time they use it. Cameron likes to point out in the weekly Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) in the Commons that Labour don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to the economy.

If Cameron is proud of and is confident in his record and vision for Britain going forward, the question is: why won’t he defend it in head-to-head debates outside of Parliament? It could be argued that Miliband needs the debates more because of the bad publicity he has been given. By reducing the number of debates and diluting it with more parties in the line-up, it could be seen as a political move by the Conservatives to drown out the Labour voice.

This brings us back to the pledge made by the Prime Minister over the weekend that he won’t stand a third term. A pledge that was reaffirmed today after it was perceived as a slip of the tongue.

What does it mean? Well I’m sure the Number 10 spin machine will try to persuade you that if Cameron wins the election, he will not have to worry about re-election in 2020 and thus will be able to focus on Britain’s future.

It could be a sign that Cameron has some plans up his sleeve that might not go down well with the electorate. Of course, this is just speculation.

The spin machine may argue that Cameron is showing that he is not egotistical by setting himself a two-term limit. However this pledge could cast a shadow over his next term should he be successful.

Though he says he would serve a full term, we saw a similar pledge from Tony Blair. Having said he would serve a full third term before resigning, his last term was plagued with calls for his resignation from the Conservatives and from within the Labour Party from supporters of then Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Here is a big lesson for Cameron: by signalling early on, prior to the election, his intentions, he is opening himself up to party in-fighting. He has fired the starting gun not on the general election, but on a leadership race to succeed him. Potentially the longest leadership race he could face.

If we look at the American presidential system whereby a President is constitutionally limited to two terms, as soon as a president wins a second term he is given a 100-day honeymoon period before the campaign for the mid-term elections unofficially kick off.

Once the mid-terms are over in his second year, the talk shifts not to the presidential agenda but to those who will seek to run for president. We see this happening now with the talk of Hilary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul already.

The presidential election isn’t until November 2016, yet the candidates are announcing pushing President Obama off the top of the news cycle. Could Cameron be setting himself up for such a fate?

Though he may not have a general election to fight, Cameron would have to keep his party happy through local elections, regional parliaments and European elections. A poor showing in this could cause an early leadership challenge. Not only this, but with potential successors in the cabinet, they might well try to sure up their chances first and serve their Prime Minister second.

When all is said and done this is a risk that Cameron is willing to take. A big risk in the strategic world of election politics.

Ultimately it’s not for the Prime Minister to decide how many terms he will have – it is down to the electorate. Cameron is trying to incentivise those who are unsure of Miliband yet don’t want to see a never-ending premiership of Cameron.

By putting a deadline on his time as prime minister, Cameron might be hoping to sway a few undecided to his side. Only time will tell.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate