Credit: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre-1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and – the all-important question – whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 09.59.48

Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely.

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.

Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.



[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 of the Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.


Promises of transparency often come back to haunt politicians. There’s an ever present danger that anyone promising or championing openness will, at some point, be hoisted by their own petard.  David Cameron is currently finding this out over his tax affairs.

In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course, as well as their medical check-ups (except, it seems, Donald Trump). You can see Hillary Clinton’s returns here and Bernie Sander’s (possibly not complete) ones here. Details of Obama’s falling income are on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site.

The tax and financial affairs of political leaders in the UK are a little less automatically public. This is fortunate for them, as many Prime Minister’s financial affairs have been rather questionable, less in law than in what it tells us about them, from the tangled finances of Lloyd George to Winston Churchill’s hand to mouth existence and vast spending (not to mention Tony Blair’s post office money making).

However, the tax affairs of politicians became a bigger issue in the 2012 London Mayoral Campaign, when Labour candidate Ken Livingstone was attacked for his arrangements. It cropped up again in this year’s contest when Zac Goldmsith released his returns following allegations of his non-dom status. It’s also become a little more common for senior politicians to publish and be damned-you can see Labour Chancellor John McDonnell’s returns here.

Cameron’s particular difficulties are not legal, as he has done nothing against the law, but rather presentational. First, in 2012 Cameron very clearly promised to publish his returns and was ‘said to be relaxed and happy’ about it-conveniently just when Ken Livingstone was having difficulties (though perhaps too relaxed as by 2015 they still weren’t published with no plans to do so). The media have been handed a very obvious promise to work with-and it seems now Cameron’s returns will be published very soon.

Second, he has made a very high profile bid to tackle tax evasion through Beneficial Ownership, and spoken out repeatedly against tax havens, not once but three times in this speech at the OGP summit in 2013, in his letter to all British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in 2014 and his berating of tax havens again in 2015.  He also criticised various people involved in various types of evasion, including comedian Jimmy Carr and Take That (though he let Gary Barlow keep his OBE). More generally, in 2010, he promised ‘a transparency revolution’ and to make ‘our government one of the most open and transparent in the world’. This, of course, opens him up to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

Finally, Cameron came close to falling into what you could call the Lyndon Johnson trap of being made to publically deny something. He spent 4-5 days appearing to evade full answers to questions about his tax, perilously close to Alastair Campbell’s seven day survivability test. It’s possible a full answer Sunday or Monday would have put it to rest, or at least made it look less worse.

So Cameron’s promises have come back to haunt him. YouGov shows his ratings have slipped to 2013 levels (and Ken has got his revenge by calling on him to resign and be sent to prison). He joins a long list of leaders from Woodrow Wilson to Tony Blair and Barack Obama who got trapped in their own transparency promises. He probably wishes he had been a little less open about being open.


In special extended essay Birkbeck’s Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos examines David Cameron’s (Re) negotiation techniques:

The outcomes of the British government’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union and the referendum that will follow are highly uncertain but the renegotiation reveals quite a lot about Prime Minister David Cameron. For a start, the decision to renegotiate relates much less to the UK’s interests than it does to Prime Minister Cameron’s inability to modernise his own party and face down its increasingly vocal right wing. He now spends most of his time talking about and dealing with the last issue he said he wanted his party to talk about when he became leader of the Conservative Party more than a decade ago. More importantly, the way in which he is going about a crucial part of this renegotiation reveals that – far from what one would expect from a self-proclaimed moderniser – key policy decisions pay little heed to evidence.

Of all the EU-related issues that Mr Cameron raised in his letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the treatment of EU citizens in the context of the UK’s welfare benefit system (i.e. monies that UK-based workers receive if they meet certain income-related criteria) is, by far, the thorniest and the one that has attracted the largest amount of media attention both in the UK and beyond. Fanning the flames of populism in relation to what he calls “welfare tourism”, Mr Cameron has repeatedly stressed that he wants to stop these benefits “acting like a magnet”, creating incentives for other EU nationals to settle in the UK under the EU’s fundamental principle of free movement across the borders of its member states which ensures that moving from, say, Warsaw to London for work is no different to doing so from Montgomery, AL to San Francisco, CA.

As a public policy issue, EU nationals’ access to the UK benefit system has at least four partially overlapping facets. One is fairness (equality before the law irrespective of nationality or, as Jeremy Corbyn rightly put it, “if somebody is working, paying taxes, doing a job just like anybody else, then surely they deserve access to exactly the same benefits as anybody else”), the second is public finance (since it relates to expenditure or, in the case of tax credits, the non-collection of potential revenue), the third is the labour market (the availability and cost of labour) and another one is migration (the relationship between benefits and a migrant’s decision to come to the UK). Fearful of UKIP’s emotive, divisive and populist rhetoric and recent electoral results, Mr Cameron has explicitly focused only on the latter aspect of the aforementioned issue, partly as a result of the high salience of immigration in the UK (which, as Simon Tilford rightly points out, reflects the failure of successive governments to take appropriate action). Mr Cameron’s decision has two implications.

The first is that this is certainly not a case of evidence-based policy making. Quite the opposite is true for we know – from academic research – that the benefit system is not the reason why other EU nationals come to the UK. This research shows that amongst EU nationals from eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004 (i.e. the main focus of the current debate in the UK), ‘the vast majority […] were attracted to the UK […] by the chance to build a “normal life” for themselves and their families’, and not the opportunity just to claim benefits. In the words of one leading expert ‘EU migrants come here overwhelmingly to work – in fact their employment rates are considerably higher than for either natives or non-EU migrants’.

Moreover, further research shows that when it comes to benefits for people who are out of work, ‘migrants from both within and outside the EU are less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals. DWP statistics [NB: the government’s own statistics] show that as of February 2015, just over 5 million people were claiming welfare benefits; of those, about 370,000 (7.2 per cent) were non-UK nationals (at the time that they registered for a National Insurance number; and of those, only 114,000 (2.2 percent of the total) were EU nationals.  Since those born abroad make up 16 percent of the working age population, and those born in the EU make up about 6 percent, it can be seen that migrants of both types are considerably less likely to claim out-of-work benefits.’

The issue of evidence in relation to what Mr Cameron calls “welfare tourism” is not new. The EU affairs Select Committee of the House of Lords wrote to the first Cameron administration’s immigration minister as early as September 2013 expressing concerns about ‘the lack of information you were able to provide on the extent of the abuse of free movement of workers.’ Even more embarrassingly, when the European Commission queried the British government on accusations made in relation to “benefit tourism”, the response was: “We consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence”, perhaps because they know that the British public’s perceptions are wrong in relation to a whole array of quantifiable issues including the scale of immigration, crime, welfare fraud etc.

When (in November 2015) Mr Cameron did use figures to justify his party’s stance, the UK’s Statistics Authority accused the government of trying to avoid scrutiny by not disclosing important sources and calculations that could have helped independent analysts assess the figures and when (two months later) a government minister was asked to produce figures showing that “benefit tourism” encourages EU migrants to come to the UK, he reportedly did not produce any.

In addition, given the Guardian’s revelation that HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax collection authority, ‘defines “non-UK families” as those where at least one adult in the claimant family is a migrant, meaning that mixed families where one partner is a British national are classed as immigrants’, it became clear that the number of in-work benefit claimants would be artificially inflated precisely because of the definition used. When the HMRC was asked (on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) to reveal ‘how many British nationals claiming tax credits are being counted as migrants’ because of that definition, it failed to provide an answer.

Finally, when asked (again on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) in December 2015 to reveal how many recently issued National Insurance numbers are active (i.e. are associated with recent tax payments or benefit claims) so as to gain a more accurate understanding of how many EU nationals have migrated to the UK and how many are in the workforce, the HMRC refused to do so, because – as it claimed –‘following the General Election, there is an active negotiation process at an international level in which UK Ministers and officials are engaged to secure support from the European Commission and other Member States for changes in EU law governing EU migrants’ access to benefits in the UK, in line with the Government’s manifesto commitments. The information is being used to inform the development of policy options as part of the negotiation process and therefore relates to the formulation of Government policy. HMRC continues to believe that releasing information in the form requested would, at this stage, be unhelpful to the negotiation process.’ (emphasis added)

This is not the first time Mr Cameron makes key decisions without a sound basis on evidence. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that he led for five years conducted a very wide-ranging review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK. That review ended by concluding that – by and large – the balance is right. No wonder the British public has not heard him say much about it since then, as the House of Lords pointed out. This might be linked to the fact that at least some of its content was not to his ministers’ liking. Furthermore, prior to the onset of the financial crisis he had promised to match the Labour government’s spending plans. Yet shortly after the onset of the crisis he accused the Labour government of not ‘fixing the roof when the sun was shining’ although there is no evidence that UK governments had been profligate until then.

There is a second, much more disturbing potential consequence of his stance on the issue of migration from EU countries. Even if Mr Cameron manages to convince the UK’s EU partners, he will ultimately fail to achieve his declared policy objective which is to reduce the attractiveness of the UK for other EU nationals, especially those from central and eastern European countries, after he has – of course – declared ‘victory’. This would not be the first time a British Prime Minister declares victory of this kind. Both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher made exactly the same exaggerated declaration in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s concealing from the British public the fact that on both occasions the final result (of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership in the first case and the UK’s contribution to the EU’s budget in the second) was closer to what the UK’s European partners had wanted. Nevertheless, this time has the potential to be far more dangerous for the UK. The way Mr Cameron has been dealing with this important issue is bound to further erode public trust in politicians and fan the flames of populism (of which there is no shortage in the UK), because as long as the British economy keeps generating jobs – irrespective of how safe or well-paid they are – it will keep attracting the young and often well-educated central and east Europeans that it has been attracting since the mid-2000s.

I am not at all advocating a different way to achieve Mr Cameron’s declared intention (quite the opposite, since the intention is wrong). Even if one ignores the broad range of immaterial benefits that openness brings with it, there is ample academic research proving the financial contribution that these people have made in the UK. For example, it has been demonstrated that

‘Those from the European Economic Area (EEA – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from outside the EEA contributed 2% more in taxes than they received in the same period, the report showed. Over the same period, British people paid 11% less in tax than they received.’

Politicians who – unlike Mr Cameron – care about the Old Continent’s long-term prospects ought to engage in an EU-wide debate on the redistribution of resources that needs to take place so as to enable local communities where these people settle to cope with increasing demands placed on schools, hospitals etc. But holding that debate requires – not playing to the gallery, which is in part what Mr Cameron has chosen to do – but having a different kind of leader, one who is prepared to fight against mistaken perceptions.

This piece was originally published on Open Democracy.


cameron worried

As a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down-to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

More importantly for Cameron, the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?


There may be trouble ahead… EPA/Andy Rain

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers-as Meg Russell explains here.

Dark times. Robert Pittman/Flickr, CC BY-ND

The Lords will be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Finally, of course, are his rivals. Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly.

Originally published on the Conversation.


David Cameron announced today, at the end of his first term as Prime Minister, that he would not serve a third term. He said in a BBC interview that ‘terms are like Shredded Wheat: two are wonderful but three too many’-see here for the full interview. Alex Massie from the Spectator summed up the confusion in this blog

No, I don’t know why David Cameron would amputate his authority before he runs for re-election either. But that’s what he has done today by ruling out running for a third term in office. What a bizarre thing to do, not least because no-one expected him to run again in 2020 even if, by some good fortune, he returns to Downing Street on May 8th.

Drilling down into this, there are three causes for bafflement:

  1. No one was asking: No one seemed to be asking Cameron and he appears to be under no pressure to announce his departure, as a number of commentators have said. Deciding when and how you go is one of the few powers that a Prime Minister can cling on to, if they can possibly hang on to it. The last leader to really do it was Harold Wilson with his shock announcement in 1976.
  2. It’s unlikely he’ll get a second term, never mind a third: He appears to be displaying a rather ‘sunny optimism’ over whether he will still be in Downing Street on May the 8th, never mind 2020. Even were he to win (or not lose) in some form, there are a series of scenarios whereby Cameron may not survive. As some have pointed Cameron didn’t win in 2010 so speculating on his future victories seemed overly ambitious, to say the least.
  3. Giving a precise date creates more trouble than it’s worth. As Michael Crick put it: ‘Tony Blair (in 2004) & Sir Alex Ferguson (in 2001) found putting a time limit on your term of office severely undermines your authority’. Our paper here examined how Blair’s promise to leave in 2004 was a sign of weakness. His hope of using his ‘promise’ as a breathing space to push his personal agendas fell flat. His enemies scented weakness and his challenger became even more powerful. In fact, giving a firm date didn’t put his enemies off but made them try and move the date nearer. Announcing you are going breaks a spell, empowers your enemies and makes you a lame duck. Blair only really made progress on issues like international aid that Brown wanted to happen anyway.

So why did he do it?

Here’s three possibilities:

  1. Cameron didn’t mean to say it: he was, as Prime Ministers are wont to do, speculating on his status and position. Cameron isn’t always careful with his speculations-as his supposed indiscretions about the Queen ‘purring’ down the phone to him after the Scottish Independence referendum showed (though I’m not convinced that even this was a mistake-see this blog).
  2. He is making political space: perhaps he was trying, like Tony Blair, to carve a space to do things he wants to do before he goes. Blair did this very much under great pressure from a challenger. Is Cameron under some pressure or threat we don’t know about? Interestingly, he did also mention his commitment to future education reforms and clearly asserted he was only ‘half done’-was he asking or playing for time?
  3. He is signalling his intent: it may be Cameron is trying to display a confidence to his supporters and challengers. There has been rumours this weekend about Cameron’s post-election safety. His comment is ‘signalling’ to those who will hear that he thinks he can win and is looking to his future. It’s a kind of messy and watered-down equivalent of Thatcher’s famous pledge in 1987 to ‘ go on and on’.

Cameron’s new ‘shredded wheat’ analogy has definitely added something to the folk lexicon of leaders. You could respond by pointing out, of course, that it depends how hungry you are and the size of the bowl. In the meantime, he should perhaps meditate on Lyndon Johnson’s advice for politicians: ‘learn how to count’.

You can read our paper using our Leadership Capital Index to look at Tony Blair’s second term: Worthy, Ben and Bennister, Mark, Tony Blair: Leadership Capital Squandered? (March 23, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2584146

Ben Worthy is lecturer in politics and is co-creator of the measuring leadership blog.



One of the most striking things about Cameron’s last visit to China is that he won the respect of neither liberal or conservatives. The liberals of course condemn Cameron’s downplaying of political issues. The conservatives may have approved of Cameron’s silence over China’s domestic politics, but their approval is condescending in the extreme.

Due to the special relationship between Britain and the US, the Chinese conservatives, ever suspicious of the US, simply do not believe Cameron’s friendly attitude will last. China’s leading statist newspaper Global Times , represents the hardliners within the CCP regime. It thundered that “His visit this time can hardly be the end of the conflict between China and the UK…,” The newspaper argued bluntly that “The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country suitable [only] for travel and study….”

A forward-looking, stable relationship between Britain and China should be built on foundations of dialogue with a broader Chinese public. The opinions of ordinary Chinese, on both domestic and foreign policies, are evolving rapidly, in spite of our undemocratic system. I believe that it is important for the British government to clearly communicate to the Chinese public their views and values in a manner which highlight the UK’s differences with the CCP regime.

Cameron’s assurances to the British press that he would raise human rights issues in private with the Chinese leaders lack credibility in the eyes of those who matter most – the Chinese public. The secret diplomacy used by the former US President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger during the Cold War can no long work today. True, a British leader needs to be extra careful when commenting on Chinese politics, due to the complex history of Sino-British relations (the Opium War in the 19th Century waged by the British that marked the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty). Many Chinese still hold the impression that Britain is an unreasonable mercantile state, and many may feel insulted if and when a British leader criticizes China. But candid criticism is still better than insincere compliments. It is no accident that the two British leaders by far the most respected in China are …. Winston Churchill and Mrs Thatcher  . Both were staunchly conservative, anti-Communist leaders. Despite their imperialist and neo-liberal credentials, they have the respect of the Chinese, including those who hate them.

Voicing the values of critical friends?

When reflecting how best to deal with China, Britain may find the examples of two other Anglophone countries worth noting.

The first is the United States. About the same time as Cameron’s visit to China, the US vice President Joseph Biden, was also visiting China to mediate the increasingly contentious territorial conflict between China and Japan. But even at such a sensitive time, Biden paid a visit to the US embassy’s visa section and delivered an outspoken speech to the Chinese citizens applying for the US visa: “Innovation can only occur when you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge your teachers, challenge religious leaders.” It was clear from the Chinese responses that such “seditious” comments actually stimulate serious discussions and reflections, and achieve more positive effects.

Of course you may say Britain is now only a mid-size power and cannot be as critical as the US. But there is another worthy example of Australia, which is hardly a superpower. The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was also the first Western leader who speaks fluent Chinese, [7] announced the principle of ‘zhengyou’, or critical friend, in his country’s engagement with China when he visited China in 2008 as Prime Minister. This Confucian concept of ‘zhengyou’ means that solid and true friendship is built on frank and straightforward dialogues. True friends should be able to be critical, and only this type of friendship can go beyond short-termism and constitute long-lasting relationship. Real friendship should involve communicating on controversial issues. With this principle of ‘zhengyou’, Australia has been able to maintain close trading ties with China without compromising its position on political issues.

Sticking to one’s principles strikes many Chinese as a far better long-term strategy for Western governments, especially conservatives, when dealing with the Chinese Communist Party.

Aoqi Wu recently graduated from our MSc Global Politics