Cameron Announces He Won't Seek Third Term, 43 Days Before British Election

The comments took his own aides and lawmakers by surprise and threatened to overshadow his Conservative Party's central campaign message.

Reuters

REUTERS - A surprise disclosure by British Prime Minister David Cameron that he won't seek a third term if voters give him a second mandate on May 7 has backfired, sparking a media frenzy about his successor and talk of him becoming a lame duck leader.

Cameron's comments, in a BBC interview conducted in the kitchen of his country home on Monday, took his own aides and lawmakers by surprise and threatened to overshadow his Conservative Party's central campaign message about the economy.

In breaks between chopping vegetables, Cameron told his interviewer that whilst he was obviously keen to be re-elected and to govern the world's sixth biggest economy till 2020, he wouldn't be seeking another five years after that and would let someone else have a go instead.

"There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good, and the Conservative Party has got some great people coming up," he said. "You know, there's plenty of talent there. I'm surrounded by very good people. The third term is not something I'm contemplating."

Cameron even took the unusual step of naming three potential successors: interior minister Theresa May, mayor of London Boris Johnson and finance minister George Osborne.

With less than seven weeks before an unusually close election and with the Conservatives neck-and-neck in polls with opposition Labour, his comments were widely seen as an unguarded tactical error.

Though unlikely to seriously damage his popularity, which is higher than his party's, the remarks risk slowly sapping his authority and turning his second term, if he gets one, into a distracting, slow-burning five-year leadership contest.

That point was underlined when his ministers entered his central London offices for a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. Instead of fielding questions about the election, a reporter bombarded them with questions about a leadership race. The ministers, some visibly irritated, kept silent.

Political rivals accused Cameron of presumptuous arrogance.

It was unclear why Cameron chose to speak of his future now, though his remarks help underscore his party's message that the task of rebuilding the economy is only half-done and it needs another five years "to finish the job."

Cameron, who also stressed he wanted to serve a full second term, may have been trying to shut down persistent speculation that he would stand down early after a possible European Union membership referendum in 2017.

Repeating Blair's mistake? 

His apparently unscripted remarks drew immediate parallels with former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who famously said he didn't plan to serve a fourth term, in the hope of being re-elected for a third one.

Blair was duly re-elected, albeit with a reduced majority, but his pledge helped weaken his authority and, under pressure over the Iraq war, he eventually stood down in 2007 and handed power to Gordon Brown without completing his third term.

Cameron's comments were seized upon by the British media, eager to inject excitement into a low-key campaign. "Cameron fires start gun on Tory leadership race," declared The Times.

The Daily Telegraph, traditionally a staunch Conservative supporter, suggested he had been trying to avoid following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, in office from 1979-1990. She once said she planned to "go on and on and on", only to be toppled in a party coup.

Cameron's spokesman was forced to reassure reporters he really would serve out "every day of a full second term", if re-elected. The prime minister's allies played down his comments, saying he had been honest with voters and had not wanted to give the impression he sought power for its own sake.

"I think implicitly everybody knows that there is a shelf life to any politician," Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC. "Nobody is absolutely indispensable."