David Cameron is a more skilful politician than most people seem to think. His statement this week that he would not seek a third term in office has been framed as a ‘gaffe’, but this assumes he hadn’t planned to say what he did.
As James Forsyth points out, the analogy Cameron used looked a little too carefully chosen to be spontaneous. Watch the interview back and you also see that he answered the question instantly and emphatically – not the behaviour of a politician on the back foot. Most importantly, the PM knows perfectly well how to avoid a question if he wants to, as Alastair Campbell was quick to point out on Newsnight. ‘I think it’s best to take one election at a time’ would have done it.
The interesting question, therefore, is why a decision like this might have been taken. One answer that we can rule out is that it will help the Tory election campaign. The Conservative message is ‘competence versus chaos’ and this certainly doesn’t sit well with that message.
This leaves us with the period after the election to think about. As things stand, by far the most likely outcome of the election is a hung parliament. In this situation, Cameron’s challenge will be to put together a stable government whilst keeping his own party happy.
In particular, a stable coalition would need stable leadership. It would need a prime minister to serve ‘every day of a full second term’. – or at the very least look he was going to. But the party management side of things is harder. After 5 years of the current coalition the Tory party is already shows signs of losing patience. And the EU referendum is likely to create deep divisions within the Conservative movement.
My best guess, then, is that the statement this week was a device to reinforce the PM’s position in his party, in the event that he leads the next government. He will now be able to say to rebels – fed up about a second coalition, the referendum, or both – that the British public elected him to serve a full term, but that he won’t be around for ever. I suspect he hopes that this would make early attempts to remove him seem churlish, undemocratic and irresponsible.
The decision to make the statement may still prove to be a mistake (I think it will). But if I am right, it is significant not because it was a pre-election gaffe, but because it shows a Prime Minister planning for a second term without a majority.