By James Hutchinson
It was all going so well. A nice shot of the PM in his everyman weekend-wear cheering a local kids' football match. A little bonhomie with the local butcher. And then a casual chat while chopping a frugal salad in a voter-pleasingly modest kitchen. Dave the PM; Dave the normal bloke you can all trust.
James Landale's question was hardly a curve-ball. Will you serve a third-term? Cameron is usually adept at what I call the 'non-answer answer': words are heard, they sound like an answer, but have nothing to do with the question whatsoever.
So it would have been no surprise had the PM come up with this boilerplate response, straight out of the politicians' communications handbook: “I am 100% focussed on this general election and winning a Conservative majority and what we want to do in a second term" etc etc. Landale may have tried again but the conversation would have quickly moved on.
Why did Cameron answer at all, let alone in the negative? If he wasn't up for obfuscation (first time for everything Dave) then even "yes" would have been a better answer than "no".
Did he just mis-speak? Cameron does have form for putting his foot in it (remember his unguarded comment about the Queen’s reaction to the Scottish referendum result?). But he even had a laboured metaphor ready – two Shredded Wheat are wonderful but three might just be too many.
So was this strategic? Would a sense of Cameron’s departure make some undecided voters more likely to plump for the Tories? It’s hardly a compelling electoral message – vote for me and I won’t be around for long. And Cameron outpolls not just the other party leaders but also his own party.
Was Cameron softening up his own backbenchers (a constituency where the PM is far from universally popular)? Having failed to win an overall majority against the dismally unpopular Gordon Brown, the knives could come out if he stumbles again against a struggling Ed Miliband. Was Cameron saying to the agitators: stick with me, no bloody coup in the event of a hung parliament please (take note, Boris), and I'll shuffle off sooner rather than later.
The problem with any strategic explanation is the sense of panic emanating from the Tories since Cameron spoke. It also risks rendering him a lame duck at worst and the subject of endless speculation at best. He’s fired the starting gun on a race no-one was ready to run. Yet.
Then there’s the constitutional dilemma – with Cameron claiming he will serve a full second term, what does transition look like? Is he PM for the fixed parliament before resigning on the day of the general election? It's a mess.
The Tory spin since the story broke is that it was an honest answer to a direct question. And Landale has claimed that he wasn't prompted to ask the question by a Downing Street spin doctor (a sure sign a revelation is strategic). Of course ‘honest answer' is the best political euphemism for misspeaking. And that may well be the answer here.
Whatever the explanation Cameron is choking on his two Shredded Wheat this morning – his ‘look at me I’m normal' piece has been subsumed by an ill-advised, off-the-cuff remark. And he will know every interview he does between now and May 7th (and beyond) will feature a question about his future in some form or other. This has only just begun.
The irony of this gaffe is that it was the equivalent piece with Landale that kicked off Ed Miliband’s two kitchens drama. To coin a phrase – if you don’t want heat, get Landale out of your kitchen. When Nick Clegg finds the BBC man at his door next week he'd be very wise to take him out for a coffee.
James Hutchinson is a commentator and communications expert
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