Let’s take the effects of Cameron’s kitchen interview in the order that they will happen. First off, the election campaign. Will any voters really be repelled, as Labour are scrabbling to suggest, by his comments? No, of course not. Those who don’t like him will continue to do so, those who do like him will also continue as before, while those in two minds will wait for some actual news which addresses their interests and concerns. At most, some will think that he’s honest and give a little credit for that.
Of course, if the impact on the campaign is very minor or nil, then that also means this is wasted time. Jim Messina always reminds the Conservatives that the average voter pays attention to political news for four minutes of each week. With six and a bit weeks to go, that leaves less than half an hour of communication time. This clearly isn’t a good use of it – today’s headlines aren’t moving voters, which makes it a missed opportunity.
What all Tories are supposed to be talking about is the contrast with Labour – finishing the economic job versus a return to the bad old days, and competence versus chaos. The message discipline the party is displaying, encouraged by Crosby, is quite impressive. There’s undoubtedly a sense of bafflement among MPs who have followed orders and left their hobby horses stabled only to see the Prime Minister of all people go miles off message. They aren’t angry so much as confused as to why he’s chosen to do so, but it’s a small chip off the centre’s authority.
The real damage done by his intervention comes after the election. Prime Ministers are meant to be like good cheeses – they don’t have a sell-by date, you just know when they’re past their best. Attempting to set down 2020 as his official end-date does nothing to make it come about – in fact, if he is re-elected this interview risks bringing his departure forward. Whenever there’s a wobble, as their tend to be for second term Prime Ministers (and inevitably will be for one planning an EU referendum), people will ask if he’s still planning to stay until the end of the decade. If there’s ever a moment when MPs are asked to choose if he goes, they will effectively be forced to decide whether they want him to stay for the full term. That’s an added risk.
It will also dent his authority in Whitehall. Those civil servants who want to resist government policy now have a date until which their rearguard actions need to hold out. Also, there’s a psychological impact on any audience of knowing that a Prime Minister is on a ticking clock – Cameron skilfully branded Blair as on his way out with the “he was the future once” line at PMQs. Quite why he would want to taint himself with the same air, I cannot imagine.
Finally, there’s the question of the impact (if any) on the leadership election. If you thought a lengthy election campaign was boring, try a long, phoney leadership campaign for size. At best, Cameron’s shortlist is inaccurate. He of all people ought to know that you can’t reliably forecast who will be in with a chance in five years’ time – if you’d asked people in 2000 to guess at the contenders in 2005, they certainly wouldn’t have said “David Cameron”. He wasn’t even an MP until 2001. They might well have named Michael Portillo, who had left Parliament by the time the race began. The same goes for 2020 – the leader of the Conservative Party then may well not even be a recognisable name yet. At worst, this is catnip to the media – they love to speculate on such races, whether they are happening or not, and it’s far from wise to encourage them to do so.