When is it time to go?

Cameron has prompted more questions than he has answered by limiting himself to two terms at the helm.

Cameron has prompted more questions than he has answered by limiting himself to two terms at the helm.

As the Prime Minister chopped vegetables in the kitchen of his constituency home chatting to the BBC’s James Landale his admission that, if he is re-elected he would serve for another term but not a third term, came out of the blue. Considering he is fighting an election campaign which is focused on contrasting his qualities as Prime Minister against those of Ed Miliband, it is difficult to understand David Cameron’s calculations which led him to start talking about stepping down.

The Conservative Party strategists, who have honed a relentless message focused on the Conservatives’ long term economic plan and are quick to use the Prime Minister’s authority to upbraid anyone who even slightly deviates from the discipline of the grid, must have been shocked that it was the Prime Minister himself making comments which have knocked the campaign off course.

Some allies have argued that the declaration that he wants to serve another full five year term was a useful response to speculation that Samantha Cameron wanted her husband to give up the role as Prime Minister midway through the next Parliament. Many in Westminster believed he would choose to step down as Prime Minister after a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017. This speculation had already been quashed by Mrs Cameron. In an interview for the Sun earlier this month she made the Cameron family’s views clear by declaring that she was desperate for him to serve another five years.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about what serving another five year term means. Will he step down before the next election to give his successor time to bed in before the next election or will he fight the next election and then handover to a successor?

Many commentators have highlighted the experience of Tony Blair who after declaring that he would serve for a full third term, but not fourth, ahead of the 2005 General Election found his authority evaporating and found himself pushed out of office by May 2007. Being mocked by pensioners at an Age UK event this afternoon wasn’t a helpful start to David Cameron’s attempt to show that he would be able retain his authority over the course of the next Parliament even though he has put a limit on his time in office.

The example of Blair is, however, significantly different to the situation that Cameron finds himself in. Gordon Brown, the heir presumptive, worried that as time went along his opportunity to establish himself as Prime Minister before the next election was evaporating. Cameron knows that there is no chosen successor. He himself mentioned three possible replacements and there are others who will be considering their chances of winning a future leadership election. There would be much less of a strategic advantage for any one of them to push him for an early exit.

If David Cameron manages to form a government after the General Election it might be in the interests of the contenders to let him serve out a full term whilst each of them seeks to establish their Prime Ministerial credentials.

Whatever happens, it is clear that we are in uncharted territory. Has the Prime Minister already made himself a dead duck a few weeks ahead of the election or are we entering into a new period of leadership where fixed term parliaments allow for the orderly transfer of leadership?  Whatever the answer, it is going to be fascinating to watch.