And so, with a confusing breakfast cereal metaphor, David Cameron announced in an interview with the BBC’s James Landale that he would not seek to run for a third term as Prime Minister should he cling on to the post at the 2015 general election.
David Cameron’s admission that he will not serve a third term in Downing Street will provoke a flurry of speculation. What was he hoping to achieve? What message was he trying to send?
First things first. I asked him a question and he answered it. It was not something that a helpful Downing Street official had suggested I might ask with a heavy hint that I might get an interesting answer. It was just one of many speculative questions that political journalists like me ask in the hope that just occasionally they might get an answer. And this time it did.
Second, Mr Cameron’s overt aim was to get across the message that he would serve a full second term. He wants to quash speculation that he might stand down early in 2017 after a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
But by emphasising that he would do another five years, he inevitably has to address what he would do after that. And his answer was clear. Terms in Downing Street, he said, are like Shredded Wheat: “two are wonderful, three might just be too many.”
This is all very interesting, and certainly we should keep an eye on what might happen in the year 2020 and beyond. There is already plenty of good analysis off the back of David Cameron’s off-the-cuff revelation, from the Spectator here, the Times of London here and here, the Guardian here, and Conservative Home here.
But of far more interest than who will be jockeying for position to replace David Cameron (a largely uninspiring field of Theresa May, George Osborne and the unthinkable Boris Johnson) is the more pressing question: who will replace Ed Miliband if Labour lose the election on 7 May?
Remember that this election should be eminently winnable for Labour. Yes, the economic indicators and fundamentals are ticking upward at the right time for the Tories, but the economic recovery shown on charts and government statistics is not yet being felt by many people. Yes, the financial crisis is fast becoming a distant memory, but Labour can spin a convincing narrative that Britain’s recovery only really took root when George Osborne relaxed many of his initial austerity goals and abandoned efforts to eliminate the budget deficit by this year.
Yet there is every chance that the Labour Party will be annihilated in Scotland, squeezed in England and consequently fail to make many inroads into the overall number of Conservative seats in Westminster. If Labour’s share of the vote and number of returned MPs does not increase substantially, they will have a very hard time trying to cobble together any kind of coalition government with the smaller parties, especially if the Conservatives remain the larger party. And in the almost certain event of another hung parliament, the fact that the Conservatives are already in government makes another Tory-led government, either in coalition or as a minority administration, the path of least resistance in any post-election party negotiations.
Whatever retirement plans David Cameron might have in store for 2020 are therefore certainly of interest, but nowhere near as important for the political future of our country than trying to work out who would take over the leadership of the Labour Party if they are led to defeat by Ed Miliband.
Be under no illusion: Ed Miliband will have to go. Much of the party has suffered acute pangs of buyers remorse ever since he ascended to the throne, propelled by trades union support. If Ed cannot deliver a Labour government on May 8th, there will be absolutely no appetite for the party to keep the faith with so unimpressive a leader.
The only question is who would win a leadership contest within the Labour Party once Ed Miliband has been shoved off the stage. The outcome will be just as important for conservatives and right-wing voters as for Labour Party members themselves, because the nature of a second term opposition to a Tory government could profoundly affect the success of a David Cameron second term, as well as determining the degree to which many of the Conservatives’ first term achievements (for example in healthcare and education) are allowed to consolidate and bed down.
The options are not pretty.
From the left of the Labour Party we have the likes of Harriet Harman, architect of the poison pill Equality Act, a legislative act of spite and attempt to salt the earth ahead of an incoming Tory administration rather than a thoughtful effort to tackle discrimination or end harassment.
Fresh from the 1940s we have Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary and High Priest of our unfortunate Cult of the NHS. Were Andy Burnham to succeed Ed Miliband as Labour leader, all of the Blair-era accommodations with private enterprise would be instantly rolled back, and the idea that the British people exist to serve the NHS rather than the other way around would be firmly cemented in Labour policy.
But what of the modernisers? What of the potential future Labour leaders who are not completely consumed with fighting a rearguard battle against Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 government and its necessary reforms? The current Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, is often suggested as a potentially charismatic moderniser (and sometimes, more ludicrously, as the “British Barack Obama”). But this blog firmly believes that Chuka Umunna is all style and no substance:
Chuka Umunna is a millionaire, former lawyer, son of a solicitor and grandson of a High Court judge. He gains cultural points for playing the cello and for having been a chorister at Southwark Cathedral, but his biography isn’t exactly salt of the earth, pulled himself up by the bootstraps stuff. None of which is wrong in itself, and none of which in isolation should preclude Umunna from the Labour leadership. But in picking a successor to Ed Miliband, who has absolutely no affinity with the common man and whose skin visibly crawls when he comes too close to a beggar, is it really wise for Labour to go fishing in the pool of London-centric, upper-middle class career politicians yet again?
And there is worse still. Chuka Umunna was for some years a member of the elite social networking site ASmallWorld, an exclusive invitation-only online club where Dan Hodges’ champion once posted haughty messages asking for suggestions for a “trash free” night out in London and complaining that the capital’s best venues were “full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.”
If you think that these actions sound like the behaviour of a rather vain man, you would be right – his office is suspected of having made detailed additions and modifications to his Wikipedia entry in order to show Labour’s rising star in the most favourable light possible.
As this blog has long argued, the Labour Party is undergoing something of a spiritual crisis. Traditional Labour values and interests are now ignored, if not openly scored, by a ruling clique which is overwhelmingly upper middle class and London-based. The phrase “London, liberal elite” is overused these days, but it very much applies to the Labour Party leadership and mindset in the Age of Miliband.
Take just one example – the Labour Party was once against Britain’s membership of the EU, because they rightly observed that the free movement of people between member states would be deleterious to the living standards of the working classes and the low paid without massive (and unforthcoming) efforts to improve the education, skills and productivity of the domestic workforce. But no longer: today’s Labour Party believes that any opposition to further EU integration is “ray-cist”, and looks down on those who are patriotic and believe in the continued importance of the nation state.
And though today’s Labour Party is still largely bankrolled by the trades union, not a single high profile member of the Labour shadow cabinet turned up to voice solidarity when the TUC held their most recent large-scale anti-austerity demonstration in London.
To be clear: this blog has no time for protectionism, government regulation or nationalisation of key industries. But when the Labour Party stops advocating radical change and looking out for the interests of the working poor, supporters of capitalism and conservatism tend to become lazy, failing to ensure that our present system works for “the many, not the few”, simply because they no longer have to. This criticism certainly applies to the present coalition government.
So by all means let’s speculate about Theresa v Boris or Javid/Osborne vs Boris. Or anyone, anyone at all vs Boris. The future of British conservatism is important, and these are legitimate questions.
But let’s not forget the battle that will rage for the soul and future direction of the Labour Party in the far more likely scenario that they find themselves without a leader on 8 May.