What would you do if someone asked if you’re planning to be in your job in five years’ time? The answer of course depends on the job you’re doing, but it’s a bit more complicated if your job title happens to be Prime Minister.
David Cameron, currently in the midst of a trade mission to South-East Asia, was asked yesterday if he plans to serve a full five year term. His answer couldn’t have been less equivocal. The Prime Minister insisted he was “fighting fit”, “loving” his job, and has every intention of hanging onto the Downing Street keys until 2020.
Frankly, you could hardly expect anything else. The chances of Mr Cameron turning round and, with a smile, explaining to reporters that, actually, he’s sick and tired of the Premiership, in ailing health and unable to vacate Number 10 fast enough are right up there with England going through the rest of the Ashes without losing a wicket. And Mr Cameron should expect to face similar questions in the months and years to come.
Rumour has abounded even before the election about Mr Cameron’s future – and specifically when he might turn over the reins to a new Conservative leader. Mr Cameron has, after all, already confirmed he will not serve a third term. The speculation has hardly been dampened by the rapidly rising stock of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, or the return to Westminster of Boris Johnson. It’s notable that, on the same day Mr Cameron’s insistence on remaining in post until 2020 was printed, the Daily Telegraph ran a full page interview with the Chancellor.
Mr Cameron is acutely aware of the consequences of publicly (and perhaps even privately) stating at this stage that he plans to stand down before the next election. He, as well every political consultant in the country, will remember the lessons of Gordon Brown’s succession of Tony Blair, during which Mr Blair’s last months as PM were those of a lame duck. But despite his insistence to the contrary, there is the potential that the Prime Minister doth protest too much. There might well be at least another Conservative leader – if not a different Prime Minister – in place by 2020.
There are certainly no shortage of possible successors. Mr Osborne has carefully cultivated his power base for nearly a decade. Theresa May remains on the scene. Despite his reputation taking a brief water cannon soaking, Boris Johnson will doubtless remain a contender. And there are more outside bets, such as Business Secretary Sajid Javid. The Conservative Party has also traditionally been quite ruthless in its leadership, and demonstrated a willingness to select the leader best likely to secure electoral victory. This inevitably means discussions behind the scenes about the possibility of Mr Cameron leaving on a high (perhaps after the much feted EU referendum) and allowing a successor time to establish themselves before the 2020 ballot.
The danger for the Conservatives is that leadership speculation distracts from the business of government. The Party machine will have to guard against this. Mr Cameron’s departure, whenever it may be, will have to be carefully managed and communicated. And, despite his vim and vigour yesterday, we should still take his insistence with a pinch of salt.