Future leadership of Tory party thrown open after Cameron's surprise remarks

David Cameron At Reception

David Cameron has opened the way for a wide contest to replace him as Tory leader after he named three possible successors among the “great people” who could assume the crown.

In a rare intervention by a prime minister in a succession race, Cameron said a “fresh pair of eyes” would be needed by 2020 as he named Theresa May, George Osborne and Boris Johnson as worthy successors.

Speaking to the BBC’s deputy political editor James Landale, the prime minister said: “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.”

The prime minister’s remarks suggest that he believes it would be unwise to endorse a candidate at this stage even though his strong personal preference would be for Osborne. Cameron has been deeply irritated by the tactics of the home secretary Theresa May who has been criticised in Tory circles for her semi-open campaigning.

The prime minister believes that the London mayor Boris Johnson is one of the party’s greatest “strikers” who will play a prominent role in the general election campaign. But he believes that his fellow Etonian still has much to prove as a serious heavyweight politician.

The prime minister believes that Osborne, his closest friend in politics who decided to give Cameron a clear run at the Tory leadership in 2005, is the strongest candidate to succeed him.

But he believes that Osborne is unlikely to be helped by an endorsement at this stage. It is widely believed in Downing Street that the chancellor’s best chances of assuming the Tory leadership is for the prime minister to serve out a full second term and to say that the two of them have presided over an economic recovery and the stabilisation of the public finances.

This thinking explains why relations between Osborne and Johnson have warmed in recent months after a frosty period which saw Michael Gove, the chancellor’s chief lieutenant, tell Rupert Murdoch over dinner that the London mayor would be a liability as leader.

The Osborne camp decided to call a truce to ensure that the chancellor would be well placed if Cameron fell at the election, at which point his own leadership hopes would be dashed. Allies have said that all bets would be off between Osborne and Johnson if Cameron survives the election, opening the way for a contest in 2010.

The prime minister’s remarks to the BBC, which appear to have been made off the cuff, show there was no “Granita” style deal between Cameron and Osborne when the future chancellor stood aside in favour of his older partner in 2005. Gordon Brown believed that Tony Blair gave an undertaking at the Islington restaurant in 1994 to stand aside after two terms in No 10. The Blairites denied a formal deal had been agreed.

Osborne confirmed recently that he did not strike a deal with Cameron. In his most revealing remarks about his decision not to stand in 2005, he told the FT earlier this month: “There was never any deal — that’s not the nature of our relationship. I didn’t tell David Cameron I wouldn’t run for the leadership of the party until after I’d told the newspapers because I didn’t want there to be any suggestion we’d done a deal.”

The chancellor said he thought of standing after Michael Howard, then Tory leader, encouraged him to do so. But he added: “I wasn’t remotely in that space so I thought, that’s not what I want to do.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 23rd March 2015 21.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010