If you’re a political buff, you’ll probably have heard the term ‘lame duck’. It’s usually associated with American politics, and refers to two types of elected officials. The first are the ones who’ve just had an election and in office only for period between their defeat and when their successor takes over.
The second type of lame duck is the one who’s completing a term of office and is either ineligible to stand again or has made the decision not to. President Obama will be a lame duck between the US general election next year and when his successor is sworn in.
And by revealing to the world that he’s no intention of standing for a third parliamentary term as Prime Minister, David Cameron risks being in the same boat. So what should be a joyous moment of celebration, when he gives his keynote speech to the Tory Party conference later in the week, has an added significance. It’s not just a pro-forma opportunity to bask in the adulation of the party faithful. It’s Mr Cameron’s opportunity not just to reaffirm the Government’s agenda, but to make it clear that the agenda is his. Or particularly, that he’s still the guy in charge and that he will still matter until the moment he chooses to leave Downing Street.
Talk ahead of the Conservative Party conference has centred around who might succeed Mr Cameron. And this seems strange, coming off the back of an unexpected majority victory in May. But Mr Cameron is responsible for prompting such discussion, but also for putting his own legacy and authority at risk by announcing his plans to leave office by 2020 and by further elevating his closest ally, George Osborne.
If this all seems like palace intrigue, it shouldn’t. Mr Cameron really does need to use his speech to reaffirm his leadership. Otherwise, and despite being the current tenant of 10 Downing Street, he risks undermining his legacy as Prime Minister and being seen as a lame duck. The Government’s direction of travel could be seen even more to be driven by the Chancellor. The Prime Minister’s achievements could be overshadowed by continued speculation over the identity of his successor – or even worse by the ‘Flashman’ persona associated with him throughout his career, by which he can be accused of being a PM without a vision. And, perhaps most importantly, it risks undermining his position and authority on the world stage if he doesn’t appear to be the one driving the ship of state. This at a time when Mr Cameron has much to achieve abroad, including renegotiation with the EU, and an unstable geopolitical situation unlike any in living memory.
So his speech this week isn’t about thanking the party. It’s not about self-congratulation. And it can’t be about smoothing the way for a successor. For his own sake, Mr Cameron needs to show he’s still the boss – and has every intention of staying that way.