Is it presumptuous of Cameron to talk about a third term in office or is it just good business planning?

David Cameron’s interview at his Cotswolds home was the top news story when it broke yesterday. During a casual interview with the BBC’s deputy political editor , James Landale, the Prime Minister ruled out serving a third term in Downing Street, comparing it to eating one too many Shredded Wheat. In doing that, he has begun the succession debate.

The Guardian’s political correspondents Rowena Mason and Nicholas Watt today write “By announcing that he will not stand for a third term, the prime minister has signalled the start of an almighty leadership campaign”. Going beyond his statement that he doesn’t want to ‘go on and on’, he has named three successors: Theresa May, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, who could provide “a fresh pair of eyes”.

Wouldn’t it be great if leaders in business would give so much notice of their intentions and have three named likely successors in mind?

Confronting a leader’s shelf-life

By stating his intent, David Cameron is giving five years notice of a possible change in leadership. Is this a bad thing? The Guardian’s Matthew Ancona’s headline is “David Cameron confronts his own shelf-life – and its consequences ” Isn’t this something all leaders should do?

Cameron has come in for much criticism from the press and his political opponents. The Independent calls it a "massive gamble or a huge off-the-cuff mistake”. Labour has accused Cameron of taking an election victory for granted and behaving in an “incredibly presumptuous manner”. A Lib Dem spokesperson said: “it’s incredibly presumptuous of David Cameron to be worrying about a third term as prime minister weeks before the general election.”

But, no one has said it’s a bad thing to have named successors five years ahead of his planned departure. And why would they?

High-profile succession

Rather than worry about volatility and presumptions about election success, can we learn something from Cameron’s approach?

  • Long-term vision: Cameron is looking as far ahead as 2020: “I think I’m standing for a full second time. I’m not saying all prime ministers necessarily definitely go mad or even go mad at the same rate. But I feel I’ve got more to bring to this job, the job is half done, the economy’s turned round, the deficit is half down. I want to finish the job.”
  • Faith in his senior team: In Cameron’s words, the party has “got some great people coming up – the Theresa Mays and the George Osbornes and the Boris Johnsons. There is plenty of talent there. I am surrounded by very good people.”
  • Honesty: One Conservative loyalist who did not agree with Cameron’s decision to talk about succession also said “The best you can say is David is straight and honest.” Isn’t that what everyone wants in a leader?
  • Averting the danger of no succession planning: Recent high-profile leadership changes that come to mind are Bob Diamond at Barclays who was very publicly ousted and replaced by Antony Jenkins. More recently, Dave Lewis replaced Philip Clarke at Tesco; during the time of the unplanned transition, Tesco’s share price dipped as confidence was lost.

Danger ahead

Whilst on one hand, Cameron has been openly honest, shown faith in his team and demonstrated some long term vision there are some dangers to be aware of:

  • The danger of openly named successors: although Cameron said there is a lot of talent, he did name three successors. Does this mean other hopefuls may feel snubbed?
  • Danger of overt succession planning: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spring to mind. In that difficult relationship, through to the leadership transition, the overt succession journey created tension in the party. There were no criteria for Brown’s selection which lost him credibility within the party and created two conflicting camps.
  • Self- interest: successors may well be thinking about their own teams. As Matt Dathan writes in The Independent today : “they will want to look like their own person rather than be forced to repeat the same, boring, “long-term economic plan” phrases.” Could the naming of successors create divides within the party as people rally behind their preferred successor?
  • Should succession be under the radar? Perhaps it would have been playing more safely not to name successors publically, but to help them develop the skills they will need if they are selected. When you don’t hear about it, it works effectively – think Steve Jobs and Tim Cook . Having said that, there is unlikely to be a seamless transition in British politics.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon commented: "There is a shelf-life to any politician. Nobody is absolutely indispensable." And that’s something all leaders should think about. Is what the country needs in five years’ time, the same as what it needs now?

Cameron said “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.” Food for thought?

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