A presidential candidate, not a party leader

It was potentially the most important announcement of the whole election campaign. But the ramifications have been almost completely ignored by the Labour Party. This is probably because the party was firstly too busy trying to make the best of a bad job in the run-up to the election, and secondly too busy post-election concentrating on not making the same mistake again.

To be fair, you wouldn’t expect constitutional changes of such magnitude to be made in David Cameron’s kitchen while he’s making a salad. But that’s how it happened, such are the wonders of our unwritten constitution. The announcement is this. He happened to mention to the BBC’s James Landale that he would be serving the full five years of this current Parliament as Prime Minister, and then stepping down to allow someone else to take over.

While I see plenty of reasons why this might be a bad idea, I see few compelling reasons to doubt that it will actually happen. But what is the mechanism by which it happens? I imagine it goes something like this:

  1. Cameron reassures his party publicly that he will keep his promise at various points between now and 2019.
  2. He advises the Tory Party sometime in early 2019 that he will stay on as Prime Minister until the election, but will cease to be Conservative Party leader at Tory Conference.
  3. The Tories will go into the 2020 General Election offering a brand new leader to the country, while Cameron is still in Downing Street.
  4. Cameron resigns as Prime Minister in May 2020 and the new Prime Minister — either Tory or Labour — takes over.

This is, to my mind, a plausible way for Cameron to keep his promise. What it means, though, is that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has, if I am right, become a Fixed Term Premierships Act, through some unwritten constitutional sleight of hand. And what it also means is that the Labour Party will have to react to this before it’s too late.

Essentially, I’m saying that we can’t afford to choose a leader now, in 2015, who will lead us into the 2020 election. We can’t afford to have someone in the glare of the public eye for close on five years, pilloried by the right-wing press, held up for public scrutiny for such a long period of time. This is an untenable position for any party leader to be in, when they will be up against a Conservative Party candidate for Prime Minister who will only be chosen in Autumn 2019. What will they be doing in the intervening four years? Attacking Prime Minister Cameron? Attacking potential PM Johnson or May or Osborne? They’ll be like Buridan’s Ass, unsure which option to go after and ending up being ineffective against both.

We would be asking far too much of anyone to spend five years of their life opposing the current government, developing Labour Party policy in the context of Cameron’s premiership, only to be outfoxed at the last moment by a Sajid Javid figure coming along, accepting the best of their critiques and then promising to be more competent and imaginative than Cameron has been.

No, what we need to do is elect a leader for a fixed term only ourselves. We need to get ahead of the curve the Tories are on, and ensure that our new leader is an interim figure, there for four years only. Only then, in 2019, at Conference, should we choose our candidate for Prime Minister at the 2020 General Election.

Over the kitchen worktop, David Cameron has, in all but name, created a Presidential system for the UK. We need to understand that now and to set in train a process to deal with it before we find ourselves out of power until at least 2025.