“I wonder what he meant by that?” said the Austrian diplomat Metternich on the death of his sinuous French counterpart Talleyrand in 1838.
Much the same is being asked of David Cameron in Westminster after his stunning disclosure that he will not serve a third term as Conservative Party leader.
Was it a gaffe? Was Dave so disarmed by the company of his Old Etonian BBC interviewer James Landale as they chopped vegetables in his cosy country kitchen in Oxfordshire that he let slip an admission of political mortality?
Or was it deliberate? With the vultures circling as the threat of election defeat looms, was Dave trying to stymie the machinations of jealous rivals. After all, if the election result is tight and opens up a choice between Miliband or Cameron led loose coalitions, should not the present Tory leader be allowed to carry on? Even if Miliband cobbles together a fragile pact with the SNP and the Libs, there could be another election within months.
No one can be sure.
But the verdict is that the PM has blundered by opening up this Pandora’s Box.
By saying that he will not serve a third term, Cameron is admitting that he will stand down in the next Parliament. If the Tories must choose a new leader to take them into the 2020 election, then clearly that decision must be made well before polling day. By 2018 or 2019 at the latest.
Recent history is not encouraging. Tony Blair was bullied into announcing in 2004 that he would not serve a fourth term. Cue endless manoeuvring by Gordon Brown resulting in Blair’s humiliation and overthrow in 2007 – and election defeat for Brown in 2010.
Cameron has also given the media a whole new line of inquiry. Instead of faithfully sticking to the Crosby script of the long-term economic plan saving the country from ruin, interviewers will inevitably probe deeper into what, exactly, Cameron meant as he prepared the salad for his informal weekend lunch with the family, a BBC camera crew and its deputy political editor.
Will he go before or after the planned 2017 In/Out referendum on Europe? Which of the favoured three (Boris, Osborne and Mrs May) does he favour?
Cameron does not often make slip-ups and he will try to get back on the Crosby message. But, seemingly unwittingly, he has underlined a simple political truth. Not only does he who wears the crown lie uneasy; the country’s whole political future is now in the lap of the Gods.