David Cameron announcing that he wouldn’t serve a third term before he’s even been given the chance to serve a second was without doubt the most exciting moment of the least engaging general election campaign in twenty years. Further still, it was a smart move, one which may yet turn out to pay dividends for the Prime Minister.
It was an audacious move by the PM. Labour spinners old and new popped up throughout the day on Monday to decry an extraordinary announcement that could surely only blow up in his face. Alistair Campbell was visibly bemused and agitated on Newsnight and Tory Chief Whip, Michael Gove, could barely contain his glee. That Cameron made the announcement in his nice, big country kitchen mattered not a jot as he dropped the ‘revelation’ almost blithely into his conversation with the BBC’s James Langdale while chopping tomatoes.
Michael Gove could barely contain his glee because he knew full well that his boss had, as he often does, played a media blinder. For Cameron, this was an opportunity to appear conversational and open whilst appearing every inch the statesman and a Prime Minister-in-waiting. While there are those in his party that will undoubtedly see this move as a mistake, Cameron is playing his usual game of staying above the fray and positing himself as the father of his party. Election campaigns, and British politics in general, are as leader-centric as ever, and Cameron is exploiting this worrying reality mercilessly as Labour remains totally unable to spin any positives for Ed Miliband, despite him being the only party leader who is talking policy with a clarity and depth that no other seems either willing or able to do. In that regard, he seems unable to catch a break. When Cameron speaks, his words are the story; when Miliband speaks, his (second) kitchen is the story.
Cameron remains a more popular party leader than Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Elections are won and lost on the economy and the packaging (it is foolish to suggest otherwise. Had Labour not been presiding over an economy in recession in 2010 they may have actually wheezed over the line for a fourth term). According to the New Statesman’s May 2015 site, the Conservatives are trusted on the economy by a margin of 36%-20% to Labour (and the number of ‘don’t knows’ are reducing in their favour too). Neither campaign has been packaged in a particularly exciting way, and with so fine a balance it is moments of inspiration or madness that will define them. Cameron’s announcement on Monday falls into the former category.
The success of the PM’s announcement will be short lived, and he must know it. It will continue to carry traction in news cycles for a few days, but its effects should ripple on to polling day barring a cancelling-out moment of madness or a bigger moment of inspiration from Ed Miliband, not impossible if he gets a break during a slow or sympathetic news cycle (he is certainly due one).
If Cameron forms a government with the Conservatives as the leading party, he can rest in the knowledge that he has guided his party to ten years of a Conservative Prime Minister. After May 7th, Cameron will know that he has left the door wide open for George Osborne and co. to undermine him quietly at every turn. That won’t phase him, his backbenchers have tried to do this since May 2010 when he first failed to win a majority against an exhausted Labour administration. It will bother him less as it becomes less his problem and more a headache for his vying successors to manage as they try to outmanoeuvre one another without causing themselves (or their party) too much damage. By 2020 David Cameron will be in his mid-fifties, exactly as Tony Blair was when he left office, and we all know that, for retiring Prime Ministers, life begins at 55.