LONDON: Mr Cameron has a unique chance to redefine politics and hand his successor a winning platform
As voting ended on election night in May 2010, I went for a drink with an old friend of David Cameron's to reflect on the campaign. It had been a weird few weeks, observing from close quarters the rise of Cleggmania and distortion caused by debates. A result that once looked in the bag remained uncertain, but still it seemed that the man we worked for was on the brink of becoming PM. "You know something funny," that friend said. "In 10 years' time, Dave will probably have gone completely bonkers if he wins tonight."
It is a tribute to the Prime Minister that, whatever his faults, he remains comparatively unscathed by power, avoiding the hubris that afflicted so many of his predecessors in No 10. Mr Cameron realises there is more to life than work - and if he is ever inclined to forget it, his family rapidly remind him. One of his closest colleagues says the reason the Prime Minister told the BBC's James Landale during this year's election that he would only serve two terms in office was that Samantha Cameron was watching in the kitchen as they filmed. He had replied more obliquely when a similar question was put to him earlier in the day, when his wife was not present.
It seemed a little strange that the admission he would serve only two terms created a fuss. Politicians are condemned for avoiding difficult questions, yet when the Prime Minister responded with a straight answer he was attacked for supposed arrogance. "Terms are like Shredded Wheat," he said. "Two are wonderful but three might just be too many." It was a curious retirement announcement, yet one in keeping with his self-deprecating style.
He was speaking in the run-up to an election widely expected to deliver another coalition. Many were predicting Ed Miliband would soon succeed him. The hostile Right of his party was preparing a coup against a leader they were dismissing privately as a two-time loser; one former minister was even declaring his intention to go on television to demand Mr Cameron quit instantly. How different things seem now after that astonishing election triumph, a personal victory for a moderate prime minister more popular than his party.
The shockwaves still reverberate around Westminster. The scorned Labour Party is so angry it may be about to elect a leader who has been a largely irrelevant fixture on the hard-Left fringe since I covered politics for his local paper three decades ago. The Liberal Democrats have disappeared; it is incredible that only three months ago they helped run the country and we cared about what they said. And now, as this paper has revealed, senior Conservatives are pressing Mr Cameron to stay in power as his party seeks to reclaim the centre ground following the setbacks of the coalition.
This is unsurprising. History is being rewritten, with Mr Cameron suddenly seen as something of a political colossus rather than dismissed as a flimsy public relations fellow. Ever since winning the party leadership, he has had a habit of confounding his critics, who are confused by his laid-back style, pragmatism and seeming lack of strategic vision. If he wins the European referendum without splitting his party and the economy remains strong, he might be able to sign off after 10 years in power with a triumphant flourish and on his own terms - a rare and precious thing for a British prime minister.
Clearly his potential departure is alarming a party he has partially reshaped in his own image, as shown by the latest crop of Tory MPs. There are nerves over whether George Osborne really has the appeal to carry the country, while Boris Johnson seems a slightly diminished figure since the election; Theresa May has her detractors, and Sajid Javid is proving an unappealing media performer. Yet political parties have a tendency to throw up surprises when asked to pick a new leader, as Mr Cameron himself proved in 2005 and Labour is demonstrating again so well.
The temptation to hang around for another few years must be growing as the Prime Minister watches Labour's self-harming leadership contest. If they really elect Jeremy Corbyn, it makes not just the next election but the fight for the all-important middle ground that much easier for the Tories - although it may also inflame the arrogance that has so often corroded the Conservatives, while encouraging those smarting rebels on the Right to restart their silly tricks. Tory faultlines remain close to the surface.
But Mr Cameron should resist the siren voices urging him to stay in power. His normality is a weakness in some respects for a politician, since he lacks the intensity and obsession that drove the likes of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, but it makes him a less flawed human being and is worth retaining. Instead of declaring the intention to go on and on, let alone ending up in a civil war with his chancellor, much better to quit with dignity rather than be dragged out clawing at the Downing Street carpet.
There will be jockeying for position whether he stays or goes. Meanwhile, a confident Mr Cameron, free of the need to run again, can focus for the next four years on re-establishing the Conservatives as a One Nation party of sound economics fused with a social conscience. They have got off to a good start with measures such as the living wage and northern powerhouse; now they should push on and ditch the bedroom tax, tackle corporate misdeeds such as tax dodging, reform a broken prison system, make National Citizenship Service compulsory and do whatever it takes to force through far higher levels of house-building.
It would be good to see him recover some of the radicalism from his early days too, with reform of our antiquated drug laws, abandonment of racist stop-and-search policies, strengthening of the BBC and renewed focus on national well-being. Despite his fragile mandate, Mr Cameron has a unique opportunity to capture the centre ground, redefine British politics and bequeath his successor a winning platform. What a change this would be from the battered, divided party scarred by years of bitter infighting that is the usual legacy of long-serving prime ministers.