As David Cameron heads into the election campaign proper, he will no doubt be hoping for a better week than the one he has just endured.
The Prime Minister only has himself to blame, however. On Monday, in an (almost too-relaxed) interview with the BBC’s Deputy Political Editor, James Landale, the PM went a little off-piste by making the astonishing announcement that he would not serve a third term in Downing Street. Immediately and quite predictably, this led to accusations from the Labour Party that Cameron was taking the electorate for granted in presuming he would even have the chance to stand down after a second election victory.
This self-inflicted wound has also perforated the up-until-now impressive message discipline that has characterised the Conservatives’ election campaign. Indeed, rather than continuing to focus on their ‘competence v chaos’ strategy vis-à-vis the economy, leading Tory politicians have been faced with a constant barrage of uncomfortable questions regarding the specific details on when Cameron would vacate the political arena.
This line of questioning continued on The Andrew Marr Show, whereby Iain Duncan Smith – the former Conservative Party leader and current Work and Pensions Secretary – admitted that Cameron would have to make way for his successor before the 2020 general election. Whether this incident will prove to have any impact come polling day is hard to say. But, there is perhaps some comfort for the Tories, which came in the form of a survey conducted for The Times’ Red Box on Wednesday. The results of this survey found that voters didn’t regard the announcement as a ‘gaffe’ on the PM’s part – rating it 3.8 on a scale from 0 (not a gaffe at all) to 10 (the biggest possible gaffe).
There were no such ‘gaffes’ from either leader to speak of in Thursday’s eagerly anticipated so-called ‘debate’. Nevertheless, Cameron appeared nervous at first and unruffled by the ‘interrogation Rottweiler’ that is Jeremy Paxman. In contrast, Ed Miliband appeared more passionate in his encounter with ‘Paxo’ and even seemed to relish in the contest. It is little wonder that the PM was so reluctant to engage in these debates in the first place. Miliband’s performance also vindicates Chris Patten’s warning to the Tory Party earlier this year not to underestimate the Labour leader’s quality as a debater.
The Conservative Party’s mood will have been further dampened by a YouGov poll in The Sunday Times, which showed that both the Labour Party has moved into a four-point lead (36% v 32%) and that Miliband’s personal rating has improved markedly in the last month: from minus 48 to minus 29 today. As any seasoned political commentator well knows, this is just one poll of many. Yet, as Peter Kellner explains, if this result were to be repeated on polling day in every single constituency, then Labour would end up with 314 MPs against the Tories’ 251 MPs – installing Miliband into No 10.
A disappointing week for Cameron’s party was further compounded when, on Thursday, elements of the parliamentary party unsuccessfully attempted to begin the process of unseating the speaker of the House of Commons – John Bercow – by changing the rules on how Commons speakers are elected. This was not only a sorry end to the 2010 parliament but was also a sad way for William Hague – Leader of the House of Commons – to end his parliamentary career.
His close friend and political boss, the PM, will also see a premature end to his parliamentary career, if he continues to both underwhelm in the forthcoming TV debates and divert from Linton Crosby’s carefully crafted campaign messages.