Will the Cameron strategy work in UK politics?

Cameron’s unexpected return to frontline politics


Will the Cameron strategy work in UK politics?

The surprise return of former British prime minister David Cameron as the country’s new foreign secretary is being seen as a last-ditch attempt by Rishi Sunak to revive the fortunes of the Conservative Party ahead of the next British general election, which is expected to take place next year.

After resigning as British premier in the wake of the Brexit referendum in 2016, Cameron turned his back on front-line British politics, resigning his seat as an MP and instead concentrating his energy on lucrative, if at times controversial, business activities.

Having invested all his political capital in the remain campaign to keep the UK in the European Union during the Brexit referendum, Cameron felt badly let down by the eventual outcome when the British people voted narrowly in favour of leaving the EU.

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Cameron’s unexpected return to frontline politics as Britain’s new foreign secretary in the wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle undertaken by Sunak this week will therefore be seen at the very least as an attempt by Sunak to improve Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU, as well as reviving Britain’s standing in world affairs.

If Sunak’s primary aim was to surprise his critics with the boldness of his reshuffle, Cameron’s return certainly helped him to achieve his aim. The appointment caught the entire British political press corps off guard, with not a single journalist predicting the move, a rare event given how most sensitive political appointments in the UK tend to be leaked in advance.

Cameron's return is seen at the very least as an attempt by Sunak to improve Britain's post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU, as well as reviving Britain's standing in world affairs.

Sunak's cabinet reshuffle, which was undertaken to revive his flagging political fortunes, was certainly far more dramatic than expected. It was widely predicted that Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has recently made a series of controversial interventions on sensitive issues such as illegal migration and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, would be sacked, a controversial move given that her right-wing views are widely praised by the party faithful.

But Sunak was left with little choice after she openly defied Downing Street's wishes by publishing an article that was deeply critical of the handling of recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, which have resulted in a number of openly anti-Semitic chants, by the British police.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks past Suella Braverman during the National Service of Remembrance at The Cenotaph on Whitehall in London

Many political observers believe that Braverman's increasingly outspoken views are part of an attempt to position herself to challenge for the Conservative Party leadership in the event of Sunak losing the next general election, which would trigger a new leadership contest.

Her dramatic dismissal from the Cabinet could therefore actually boost her  leadership hopes in the long run, which are easier to coordinate from the back benches. Some have even speculated that her incendiary comments of the last few days, on the homeless and Metropolitan police, were, in effect, deliberate acts of self-sabotage.

Some have even speculated that Braverman's incendiary comments of the last few days, on the homeless and Metropolitan police, were, in effect, deliberate acts of self-sabotage.

The appointment of Cameron, who is seen as a more moderate Conservative figure, and the removal of Braverman certainly signals a shift towards the centre ground of British politics, one Sunak hopes will help to revive his political fortunes.

Another important element of Sunak's reshuffle was the appointment of former foreign secretary James Cleverly as Braverman's replacement at the Home Office.

Even so, Cameron's appointment will undoubtedly be received with mixed feelings among many Conservative MPs, who see the former prime minister as a divisive figure for his role as the architect of austerity following the 2008 financial crash and the prime minister who was in office when Britain voted in favour of Brexit. In terms of foreign affairs under his premiership, many will remember his role in overthrowing Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, plunging the country into a bitter civil war.

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The old guard

Questions will certainly be asked as to why the Prime Minister could not find a candidate among sitting MPs to become foreign secretary, and why he did not turn to an obvious ally like Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch or Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove to fill the role.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the Commons, has already shown concern about Cameron's appointment and the fact that the new British foreign secretary will sit in the House of Lords, and not the Commons as his recent predecessors have done.

At the start of Commons business following Cameron's appointment, Hoyle complained that, given the "gravity of current international situation" at a time of war in Ukraine and the Middle East, it was "especially important that this house is able to scrutinise the work of the Foreign Office effectively".

Newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Cameron walks outside 10 Downing Street

Hoyle has commissioned the Commons clerks to work on methods to ensure the new Foreign Secretary is "properly accountable" to the Commons. Lord Cameron will be the first occupant of a great office of state to sit in the House of Lords since Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1990s.

Also, in appointing Cameron to one of the top four offices of state,  Sunak has chosen to disregard his close association with one of the UK's biggest financial scandals of recent years. Two years ago, BBC Panorama revealed internal documents suggesting Cameron had made about $10m (£8.2m) jetting around the world to promote a highly controversial finance business, Greensill Capital.

Greensill, whose disgraced boss Lex Greensill was given an office in Downing Street under Cameron's premiership and later became both his friend and his employer, collapsed in March 2021.

The Greensill episode might help to explain the results of a snap poll of 2,000 people taken by YouGov after the former premier's appointment, which showed that 38 per cent those polled thought the Cameron appointment was bad, only 24 per cent that it was good, as compared with 57 percent agreeing with the dismissal of Ms Braverman to 20 per cent disagreeing.

Cameron nevertheless remains keen to stress his credentials, commenting soon after his appointment, "While I have been out of front-line politics for the last seven years, I hope that my experience – as Conservative Leader for eleven years and Prime Minister for six – will assist me in helping the Prime Minister to meet these vital challenges."

Whether Cameron's eye-catching appointment helps Sunak to make any inroads against Labour's massive 21-point lead in the opinion polls before the next British elections remains to be seen.

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