Cameron’s ‘shredded wheat’ pledge to give up power would be easy to break

Does anyone doubt that he could win the next general election?

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Talk about a reversal of fortune. There was a valedictory feel to the visit by David Cameron’s children to the gallery of the House of Commons to watch the last Prime Minister’s Questions before the election. During the campaign, I travelled enough with the Prime Minister to detect a note of resignation in him. He had done his best. If that wasn’t enough, as he seemed to feel it might not be, he wouldn’t reproach himself.

His place in history wouldn’t have been much if he had lost. A one-term prime minister who had scraped in with the help of Nick Clegg and who never won an election outright. But now look at him. He could be up there with Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger if he wanted.

Who can doubt that, if he wanted to, he could stay on and win the next general election? He would have to go back on his “shredded wheat” promise – two terms “are wonderful but three might just be too many” – but if he did he could stay at the top for 15 years, overtaking not just Blair (10 years) and Thatcher (11) but Gladstone (12), Salisbury (13) and Liverpool (14). Leaving just Pitt (a few days short of 19 years) and Walpole (nearly 21 years) ahead of him.

Well, he can dream, can’t he? Charles Clarke and Toby James this week publish a study of Conservative leaders that makes the point that Cameron’s just-scraped election win in 2010 was actually one of the biggest pro-Tory swings of British electoral history. And how tempting it must be to reverse the traditional pattern and to record successively increasing majorities over a long career at No 10.

Immediately after the election, I thought he might change his mind and have that awkward conversation with George Osborne in which he explained that he owed it to the country to serve a third term. Cameron and Osborne always swore that they had learned the lesson of the Blair-Brown tensions but the Prime Minister wouldn’t be human if he didn’t wonder about his place in that league table. But now that the Labour Party has decided to concede the next election five years in advance, paradoxically, I think that Cameron is more likely to stick to his plan to stand down before then.

Ian Birrell, who used to be Cameron’s speechwriter, notes that Samantha Cameron was in the kitchen when her husband gave that interview to the BBC’s James Landale in which he said he didn’t intend to stand for a third election. He urges his former boss to seize his “unique opportunity to capture the centre ground, redefine British politics and bequeath his successor a winning platform”. As he says, this would be quite different from the usual legacy of long-serving prime ministers, which is a “divided party scarred by years of bitter infighting”.

James Hanning, Cameron’s co-biographer, tells me Sam feels the constraints of high office “very much”, and the couple recognise that they don’t have enough quality time together as a family, a feeling shared by the children, evidently. The PM’s “chillaxing” has nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with an enviable capacity for switching off and a real enjoyment of having down time with his family. And if Cameron himself is conscious of how PMs “go mad” after too long in office, he is also aware of what an unreal, police-protected existence their children, still only four, nine and 11, have had for their entire lives hitherto.

One friend of Cameron’s said before the election: “I hope he loses.” He thought that all prime ministers go a bit mad if they stay in office too long, but his concern implies that he couldn’t be sure that this one, for all his apparent self-awareness, would resist the sirens calling him ever onward. And it would tempt a saint to survey the wreckage of the Labour Party and say, “Over to you, George.”

Unexpectedly, however, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn makes it easier for Cameron to walk away. The one thing that would allow a sitting prime minister to convince themselves that they had to stay on is the belief that only they have what it takes to win the coming election. In normal circumstances, such as those prevailing two weeks ago, Cameron would have been a more obvious election-winner than his Chancellor. Now the bar to clear is lower. Osborne may not be quite such a natural performer on television as Cameron, but he can be safely entrusted with beating a Labour Party led by a disciple of Tony Benn.

Yet also the obstacles to a Cameron third term are falling away. It is now understood that he has decided to try to hold the referendum on our membership of the European Union next year: he realises that he won’t get much more out of extended negotiations, so better to pocket the trivial concessions he has already won and dash to the polls. Anti-EU sentiment has subsided and a pragmatic vote to stay in seems likely. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that Cameron can win the vote for Yes without seriously dividing his party. The number of Conservative MPs who are determined to vote to leave come what may is no more than 30 and may be as low as 20.

But if the referendum is held in 2016, it will intensify the question: when exactly and how is Cameron going to stand down? One other thing he will have learned from the Blair-Brown years was how quickly the speculation grew after the 2005 election about the timetable for the handover. I would imagine that Cameron and Osborne are having a very Blair-Brown extended conversation right now. Cameron might be musing about how a late handover in 2019 would maximise the benefit of the new leader’s honeymoon in the 2020 election, while Osborne would be looking over his friend’s shoulder at the shadows of Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Sajid Javid beyond. Cameron can dream, can’t he?