The morning after the Newsnight before, everyone is asking why did he do it? And how will it work? Find the answer the second question and I think you have the answer to the first.
The UK constitution has always created difficulties for a party in power that wants to change leader. The incumbent leader – the Prime Minister – can resign easily enough. But problems lie in wait for his or her successor. The newly elected leader is swept off to meet the Queen and then straight into Downing Street to form a new government, working with the people that they have just spent weeks competing with for the post. Any planning discussions have been restricted to conversations with their own supporters, not with other senior ministers.
If that wasn’t tough enough, the press and the opposition will be asking whether the new prime minister will call an immediate election. Constitutionally, there is no need, but it creates an additional distraction for the incoming prime minister, finding their feet at barely a moment’s notice whilst fending off criticisms that they have no mandate from the people. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides a fig leaf for the incoming prime minister to hide behind, but it is not a bar to an early general election.
Across the pond, we see an American system in which the party in control of the White House not only elects its successor candidate whilst the incumbent is in place, it also allows the president-elect some 10 weeks of transition before he (or, one day, she) takes power – and nearly as long for members of Congress. Many a British prime minister – outgoing and incoming – may have eyed that arrangement jealously.
David Cameron appears to be angling for a version of that. He wants a full second term. Step 1 is to be re-elected in 44 days’ time. By no means an easy step given the current state of the polls. But without it, Steps 2 and 3 fall away. So let’s hypothesise that he manages the first step and address the “How?” question that seems to be taxing so many political watchers.
Step 2 will be to resign as leader of the Conservative Party at some point late on in the next parliament – late enough not to jeopardise his political programme, but early enough to allow time for a leadership election within the party – and time after that for the newly elected leader to prepare for a general parliamentary election.
Now we hit the problem. Once the Conservative Party has identified a new leader, in say late-2019, there would undoubtedly be clamours for Cameron to go immediately and not wait out the period until the next election. It would be unprecedented for Cameron to stay on in No 10. An unseemly “clinging to power”, many would say. Historians and constitutionalists would be trotted out to say it was unconstitutional: he should seek an audience with the Queen and recommend her to invite the new Conservative leader to form a government. The clamour would almost certainly be irresistible. Unless … Unless … Unless he had a mandate from the people.
But how to get that without calling a general election: the very thing this whole process is designed to avoid? If only David Cameron had told the voters back in 2015 that his plan, if elected, was to remain as prime minister for the full five years, but no longer than that.