David Cameron is being urged to renege on his pledge to stand down before the next general election amid claims from senior Tories that the candidates currently seeking to replace him are “hopelessly ill-equipped” to become the next Prime Minister.
A senior Tory MP told The Independent on Sunday that he would raise the issue with Mr Cameron during private talks in Downing Street because of the “great resentment” the leadership speculation is causing the party.
In an apparently off-the-cuff remark in the run-up to the last election, Mr Cameron revealed that he would not seek a third term in No 10. He said if he were re-elected he would serve the full five years and then step down.
No 10 has insisted that Mr Cameron intends to stick by the pledge – and is determined to stay for “the vast majority of the Parliament”. But there has also been speculation that the Prime Minister could quit soon after the EU referendum – perhaps as early as 2017.
The two frontrunners to succeed Mr Cameron – the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Chancellor, George Osborne – have been joined by a host of lesser-known ministers. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, last year announced that she was considering standing, while the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has been heavily tipped as a standard bearer of the Thatcherite right.
Ministers outside the Cabinet, including Priti Patel, Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom, have also been tipped. And Robert Buckland, the Solicitor General, last month said he could stand if no one from the One Nation wing of the party emerged.
Meanwhile, Liam Fox, the former defence secretary who now sits on the back benches, has emerged as a contender after becoming the leading figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the EU.
The jockeying for position has sparked anger among Tory MPs, with a senior Tory saying Mr Cameron needed to order ministers to “get back in their box or resign” as it was beginning to dominate everything.He said: “Boris is out of control. He’s only got two or three supporters. Theresa’s got a maximum of 10. George is the Crown Prince and is getting on with it, but most of us are ‘none of the above’, thank you.”
Speaking to The IoS, Sir Alan Duncan, a former minister, said Mr Cameron’s off-the-cuff remark during the election campaign had sparked an unhelpful focus on the Tory leadership.
He said: “A casual comment in an interview should not be taken as permission for everyone to start playing leadership games. There is no enthusiasm for any sort of leadership antics at the moment. Anyone who is playing that game needs to realise that it is causing great resentment and it will backfire immediately.
“Most of those who are trying to put their name in the frame are hopelessly ill-equipped to step into the Prime Minister’s shoes and should just shut up and back off.”
Sir Alan’s intervention comes after the former chancellor, Ken Clarke, admitted that he couldn’t see any “giants” in the race to replace Mr Cameron. He also claimed that the next Tory leader could emerge from nowhere just a few weeks before Mr Cameron steps down.
Mr Clarke said Mr Johnson was “undoubtedly the biggest personality on the block”, but he needed to develop a following not “entirely [based] on his personality”. He added: “The public loves Boris, but he has to answer the question, ‘What would you do if you were Prime Minister?’”
When Mr Cameron announced that he would stand down before 2020, he claimed that reducing the deficit and fixing the economy was “half done” and he wanted to “finish the job” of education and welfare reform. But he said: “There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good”, adding: “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.”