The thorny problem of when Prime Ministers should leave office

Dr Matthew Ashton

Dr Matthew Ashton

Every so often a politician answers a question in such a way that sets the cat amongst the pigeons. We’re so used to their constant obfuscation and ducking and diving that a relatively straight answer to a straight question causes everyone to sit up and take notice. David Cameron’s comments on when he might leave Downing Street is one such case. However while his answer might cause confusion, it also addresses a very real issue in British politics.

Most political careers of Prime Ministers in the 20th century have ended in failure of one sort or another. Equally, very few have chosen when to go – they’re either thrown out by the electorate, or in rare cases, by their own party. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that she wanted to go ‘on and on’ which might have been tempting fate just a little too far.

There are a lot of reasons why suggesting a predetermined exit date creates difficulties. Firstly is that it undermines your authority as people know that you’re on the way out (as merely suspecting it before). Like the President of the USA in their second term in office you effectively become a lame duck. In effect Prime Ministers leaving office is similar to having their finger on the nuclear button. Everyone knows that they could press it at any moment, but the real power comes from the fact that only the PM knows for certain, leaving everyone else guessing. The argument from many is that announcing his intention not to seek a third term will lead to endless speculation about his successors. However this was already happening. The press would endlessly speculate about the comments of an empty bag given half a chance.

The other main problem with serving a full term in office is that is that it raises the question of when do you change leader? Doing it after the election would be difficult as the public wouldn’t know who they were voting for (of course they should be voting for their constituency MP, but that’s rarely the case). Any party that entered a general election unable to say who the Prime Minister would be afterwards would be heading for electoral suicide. Even if they won and a new PM was chosen post-election, they’d be dogged by accusation of lacking a mandate from the British people.

Holding the leadership campaign just before the election is also problematic as it doesn’t give the new leader any time to bed in. It’s very hard to run a campaign based on your record when you don’t really have one. Letting your successor have at least one year in the top job seems the least you can do. This then means that Prime Ministers have to go either towards the end of their second term in office or the end of their third term.

If things are going well the temptation is to stay. Winning two elections helps secure your reputation and makes you less likely to be forgotten. Equally if things are going well it’s easy to decide to stay on and bask in your success. However the longer you stay the greater the risk that things will inevitably go wrong and this will damage your legacy. Both Thatcher and Blair are perfect examples of Prime Ministers who hung on a little too long. In this sense it’s a bit like being a football manager. Knowing when to get out reputation intact is half the battle. Better to leave like Sir Alex Ferguson rather than hang around and risk becoming David Moyes.

The one thing that is different now is that we have fixed term parliaments. This might have made Cameron decide to play it safe. He’s presumably decided that in four years’ time the economic recovery will be in full swing and he can take the credit for this. If he stays for a full third term (assuming he’s lucky enough to be elected), the British economy might suffer one of its periodic collapses. He’d then be known as the Prime Minister who took Britain out of recession and then back in again. Perhaps better to tell the British people now that he won’t be standing for a third term rather than suffer another five years of speculation. At least this way much of the focus might shift to his eventual successor leaving him freer to get on with the job of governing the country.

Dr Matthew Ashton
Politics Lecturer
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

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