Cameron’s exit strategy analysis: 2020 or bust?

By Dr Matt Ashton

David Cameron has claimed that he would like to stay on as prime minister after 2015 and potentially up to 2020. This isn't surprising, as he'd be a pretty poor leader if he didn't show enthusiasm for remaining in office and winning the next election. The question of when to let go of power, though, is one that that has haunted British political leaders for the last two centuries. A dignified exit is vital to a prime minister's legacy, and getting it wrong can be devastating.

This begs the question, then, of when Cameron would want to stand down. Assuming that he survives politically, he has three potential options. One is to serve until 2020 and then leave just before the election, allowing someone else to take leadership of the party. Stay on and try to win in 2020 and then serve beyond that, or finally standing down in 2017/2018, allowing a successor a two-year period to prepare for the next election. All of these possibilities have potential problems.

Cameron is unlikely to want to try and go on and on indefinitely. No one wants to replicate the career of Margaret Thatcher where you're pushed rather than going at a time of your own choosing. It lacks dignity and seriously damages your legacy. Equally, it's very rare to find a senior political leader who has remained in power for more than a decade where it's turned them into a better person. Luckily, British prime ministers don't have absolute power, so they're unlikely to become absolutely corrupt. However, power does do strange things to people: the longer their exposure to it, the worse the effects. On the plus side, they gain experience and knowledge. On the downside they accumulate political enemies, U-turns and an increasingly distant and distorted view of the real world. Some people have compared living in No 10 to being in a goldfish bowl. Others have mentioned that you can develop a bunker mentality if you stay too long.

Making it clear that you would stand for one more term and leave just before the next election, though, would create its own set of problems. You'd potentially become a lame duck figure, slowly losing political authority as you reached the end of your term in office and your underlings began plotting to replace you. If your party then lost the next election you might be blamed for not giving your successor enough time to bed themselves in and develop a relationship with the electorate.

This approach also assumes there is someone competent waiting in the wings to replace you. If there isn't you'd be stuck in the awful dilemma of whether to do as you'd promised and stand down, or suddenly decide to stay on. If you did this it would be breaking a pretty big promise to both the party and the electorate. It would also just be kicking the can down the road.

Leaving in 2018 midway through a parliament has its fair share of issues as well. The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown illustrate the problems when there is ongoing confusion about when a leader will step down. The last few years of Blair's premiership were riven by infighting and policy paralysis. There are still those who argue that Labour would have won in 2010 had Blair remained in charge, but I doubt that would have stopped the political manoeuvring behind the scenes. It would have still left the question on when Blair would leave hanging in the air. In retrospect he got out just at the right time before the credit crunch struck, avoiding much of the blame for it. The public, though, had five years of interviews where he had to give increasingly evasive answers about the succession.

By standing down midway through a parliament a prime minister also creates a democratic issue where Britain could potentially be led by someone with a radically different vision and set of policies. Obviously the British public don't vote for prime ministers in elections. But you do vote with a reasonable expectation that you know who the leader of each party is and what their policies are. John Major and Gordon Brown both suffered from the fact that they originally became prime minister without having to win an election first.

All of this begs the question: what to do about this, now? Term limits like they use in the US would be difficult to implement in Britain and would still lead to many of the problems mentioned above, especially the slow erosion of power. As a result we'll probably be stuck with the current quagmire, where successfully leaving office on their own terms is the ultimate test of a leader's political wisdom and skill.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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