Downing Street mounted a frantic rescue operation to shore up David Cameron on Tuesday, with senior Conservatives rallying behind his unexpected decision to announce he would not serve a third term in office.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said Cameron had given a straight answer to questions about his future in Downing Street to avoid charges of arrogance that he wanted to “go on and on”. The chief whip, Michael Gove, said it was a statement of the obvious, and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, said the remarks were “banal”.
Amid unease on the Tory backbenches at the prime minister effectively firing the starting pistol on the next Conservative leadership contest by naming his three likely successors, Fallon threw back the central charge by Labour and the Liberal Democrats: that the prime minister had behaved arrogantly by taking the electorate for granted by suggesting that he would remain in No 10 until 2020.
The defence secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The prime minister made very clear he is standing for a full fifth term … what happens in 2020 really, I think, doesn’t bother a lot of people …
“If he had said exactly the opposite – that he wanted to go on and on and he wasn’t prepared to answer the question when he was likely to finish – you’d have accused him, quite rightly, of arrogance and wanting term after term. He answered the question in an absolutely straight way. Ten years as prime minister is probably enough for anybody.”
Fallon added: “It was a fairly straight answer and it was a fairly obvious answer. He is not going to go on and on, of course not. I think implicitly everybody knows that there is a shelf-life to any politician. Nobody is absolutely indispensable.
Fallon spoke out after Gove made an unscheduled appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme on Monday to say the prime minister had given an honest answer to a straight question and that it was just confirmation that he hoped to serve a second term in No 10.
Gove said: “It was a statement of the bleeding obvious. I wasn’t surprised by the prime minister saying it. One of the differences between David Cameron and [his] predecessors – Margaret Thatcher, others whom you have had to prise out of Downing Street, their fingernails have been there in the door jamb – David Cameron is not interested in the office for what it can give him. He thinks at the end of two terms, ‘I will have done my job.’”
Cameron’s surprise decision to rule out serving a third term in Downing Street, revealed in a BBC interview, led to dismay among senior Tories as he laid the ground for a succession race by naming three senior Conservatives who would provide “a fresh pair of eyes”.
Opponents accused Cameron of taking an election victory for granted and behaving in an “incredibly presumptuous manner” by naming Theresa May, Boris Johnson and George Osborne as likely successors in 2020.
The prime minister found himself under fire after he suggested in an unguarded interview that it would be “mad” to hang on to power after 2020. Speaking to the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, mostly in the kitchen of the prime minister’s Cotswolds home, Cameron said: “I’ve said I’ll stand for a full second term, but I think after that it will be time for new leadership. Terms are like shredded wheat: two are wonderful but three might just be too many.”
Asked whether he would stand for a third time, Cameron added: “No. I think I’m standing for a full second time. I’m not saying all prime ministers necessarily definitely go mad or even go mad at the same rate. But I feel I’ve got more to bring to this job, the job is half done, the economy’s turned round, the deficit is half down. I want to finish the job.”
Cameron then took the rare step for a modern prime minister of naming his likely successors. “There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good. The Conservative party has got some great people coming up – the Theresa Mays and the George Osbornes and the Boris Johnsons. There is plenty of talent there. I am surrounded by very good people.”
Osborne is believed to be the prime minister’s strong personal preference as successor, but naming May and Johnson suggests caution over a specific endorsement
The three senior politicians are already the bookmakers’ favourites to be their party’s next leader, perhaps as soon as this year if the Conservatives lose the election. However, their ambitions have never before been so publicly acknowledged by Cameron.
Amid astonishment in the tearoom at Westminster, where Tory MPs accused the prime minister of undermining his own authority by talking of his departure, No 10 was forced to launch a damage limitation exercise.
But one former minister said: “This was peculiar and unnecessary. It does not help the prime minister’s authority.”
One loyalist said: “This was an ‘Oh fuck’ moment. The best you can say is David is straight and honest.”
Cameron, encouraged by his wife Samantha, has often been heard to joke in private that he would like to leave Downing Street before he goes mad, unlike some of his predecessors. Thatcher famously said after her third election win in 1987 that she would like to “go on and on”.
Tony Blair, who was conscious of the dangers of staying in office too long, said towards the end of his second term in 2004 that he would serve a third term and stand down at the next election. Blair’s aides say that his declaration, prompted by a minor heart procedure, sapped his authority and emboldened supporters of Gordon Brown who eventually unseated him in 2007.
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s chair of general election strategy, said in response to Cameron’s interview: “The Tories are taking the British public for granted. It is typically arrogant of David Cameron to presume a third Tory term in 2020 before the British public have been given the chance to have their say in this election.”
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “It’s incredibly presumptuous of David Cameron to be worrying about a third term as prime minister weeks before the general election.”
Downing Street sources immediately tried to row back on Cameron’s comments, saying he was only rejecting the idea of serving a full third term. One source said: “What happens in five years’ time in 2020? Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Tory MPs suggested that other leadership hopefuls, such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, would be disappointed at his statement over his successors. Johnson joked that the next Tory leader has probably not even been born when he was greeted by television cameras as he returned home. “The next leader of the Tory party is probably a babe unborn. Kids grow up fast these days, folks.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 24th March 2015 08.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010