David Cameron: The veteran UK politician granted a new lease of life

Braverman got her wish and was duly sacked. But If the Conservatives lose the next election, she will be a shoo-in for the leadership of her defeated party.

Newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Cameron walks outside 10 Downing Street
Newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Cameron walks outside 10 Downing Street

David Cameron: The veteran UK politician granted a new lease of life

Britain’s political pundits were well aware that Monday might be a momentous day, following on the heels of the country’s lost Armistice weekend, which was best commended to oblivion.

Imagine their surprise, however, as they gathered in Downing Street to spot the arrivals at Number Ten for the anticipated reshuffle, when a big black car drew up and out stepped a political figure from the distant past. Judging by their astonishment, it may as well have been Churchill. It’s well known, after all, that a week is a long time in politics. Seven years is the equivalent of a geological epoch.

Fortunately, some of the pundits hanging around in the dingy old terraced street that day were old enough to recognise the familiar frown and ruddy complexion. “David Cameron?” they squealed, in utter disbelief, for verily it was he.

As he once famously said of an advisor who’d fallen foul of the law, ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ – but that was Andy Coulson, a former hack whose past, working for a tabloid newspaper, had caught up with him.

This second chancer was no less than the man who had called and lost the referendum on membership of the European Union. At the time, people who regretted Brexit had compared him to Lord North, the man who lost the American colonies.

So, it wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill political revenant they saw plodding purposefully towards his old pad. It was, some would say, the architect of the whole almighty mess that followed his downfall. As someone wittily remarked, he was back from the shed, referring to his shepherd’s hut, with its price tag of £25,000, to which he had withdrawn to pen his memoirs. As someone (less wittily) remarked, Daddy was home, meaning ol’ blue eyes was back to bring much-needed gravitas to the cabinet team, a grownup to join the kiddies around the table, oddly out of place, like a crooner in the age of round-the-clock rock and roll.

And yet, why not? After all, we live in a time when the Beatles can have a new single at number one in the pop charts, despite half the band members being dead. As for the elderly members of Abba, they can enjoy eternal youth as holograms in Stratford. Even Elvis, with the help of artificial intelligence, has taken to impersonating himself from beyond the grave and will never, ever have to leave the building. Given such examples of immortality, the real puzzle is why the Tories didn’t go all the way and give the task of running one of the great departments of state to baroness Thatcher.

There he was then, the ghost of Austerity himself, back in his old haunt. It was cat nip for the pundits, who couldn’t contain their excitement for the rest of the day. Sam Coates on Sky actually exclaimed “I mean what? What?”

Read more: Will the Cameron strategy work in UK politics?

It had been common knowledge that a cabinet reshuffle was in the offing, yet no one, however seasoned an observer, however privy to leaks and confidences, had seen this appointment coming. Added frisson came from the fact that Rishi Sunak, nicknamed ‘inaction man’ by his critics, simply wasn’t associated with such boldness.

They frantically dusted off the old phrases they had learnt at the knee of their grandsires: compassionate conservatism, that was one. Cameroons, as their predecessors had referred to the Notting Hill set. Yes, Notting Hill set, it was all coming back to them now. Didn’t he hug a hoodie once, or was that a huskie? Wasn’t there something about a sucking pig?

Out of a vagueness equivalent to the myth of Beowulf swam the image of a bygone epoch when the pundits were still at their desks in the PPE classes, or earlier in some cases, and the phrase “Daddy’s home!” still meant something.

The thing none of them could quite believe was that the story of the weekend, and indeed of long months before it, had been so abruptly eclipsed: that of a true-blue culture warrior ranting against the ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.’

Home Secretary James Cleverly listens to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference following the Supreme Court's Rwanda policy judgement

Instead, Rishi had seized the narrative. That’s Rishi Sunak, the same man who the pundits said had no political nous whatsoever, was rubbish at comms, had madly declared himself a change candidate after thirteen years of Tory rule, etc, etc... that same Rishi Sunak, incredibly, had played a blinder.

Instead of the negative news that Suella Braverman, the outspoken Home Secretary, was gone, which reflected poorly on the Prime Minister’s appointment of her in the first place and his craven loyalty to her thereafter, the actual story of the day was ol’ blue eyes releasing his latest album. Incredible how swiftly the other story had been buried.

But then, in a way, it was the pundits’ own doing. Hadn’t they been predicting Braverman’s downfall for days now, till it already seemed like old news. By the weekend, everyone knew – even the Observer’s slowest-witted pundit, Andrew Rawnsley – that Suella was cruising for a bruising. It was obvious after she published that article in the Times that was entirely innocent of Number Ten’s editorial interference, despite a request for certain, let us say, modest redactions to be made. Surely, said Rawnsley, she would have to be sacked. Her boss had urged her to tone the language down, and she had flatly ignored him, labelling the Metropolitan Police too soft on protesters and claiming there was “a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters” and that they were tougher on right-wing extremists than pro-Palestinian “mobs”.

Because it was not just any old demonstration Braverman was objecting to. This was the one in support of Palestine, which she had already labelled a ‘hate march.’ The Prime Minister had also expressed a preference that it should not take place, as the weekend was traditionally dedicated to the commemoration of those who gave their lives defending the country in the two world wars. But – crucially – he had only met the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to voice his anxieties. He hadn’t questioned the man’s operational independence.

The Times article was not so coy. It went ahead and questioned the impartiality of the police. The implication was that Mark Rowley, head of the force and the most important copper in the land, was far too ‘woke.’ He could not be trusted to keep the peace on the streets because he turned a blind eye to supporters of terrorism.

The Times article was not so coy. It went ahead and questioned the impartiality of the police. The implication was that Mark Rowley, head of the force and the most important copper in the land, was far too 'woke.' 

This barrage of criticism came hot on the heels of similarly extreme comments. Earlier in the week, the Home Secretary had described homelessness as a 'lifestyle choice' and suggested that destitute people should have their tents confiscated. Given that this is the very time of year most decent people get worried about the issue, this was provocatively insensitive. In view of comments like this, the consensus among the pundits was that Braverman was daring Sunak to sack her.

As a direct consequence of her wrangle with the Metropolitan Police and her claim that they had favourites, far right hooligans descended on the capital intent on disrupting the 'hate march' and defending Armistice Day. On arrival, they drank copious amounts of beer, attacked the police, then rampaged through Chinatown, as you do when literally anyone who doesn't share your facial attributes is perceived as unpatriotic. If the police are blocking your access to one kind of enemy, it's any port in a storm for your frustrated stormtrooper.

Read more: Will Israel's war on Gaza impact the outcome of the upcoming UK elections?

So it came to pass that, incited by Suella, they fell in behind their leader, Tommy Robinson, the thinking woman's thug, a chap who is relatively articulate and generally your more refined kind of racist. As they streamed through the streets surrounding Leicester Square, Robinson was moved to belt out the inspirational words of William Shakespeare, i.e., our national poet:

And we shall shock them. Nought will make us rue,

If England to itself do rest but true.

Actually, he didn't quote Shakespeare, though his followers more than made up for his shyness by being really shocking. They hurled insults at the police and threw punches, while their leader, after a bit of token hell-raising to make a point, hailed a cab and left his followers to the tender mercies of the Met.

Elsewhere, the main march passed off peacefully, attended by people of all faiths and none, including Jews, and people of all ages including children. Towards the end of the afternoon, some uglier elements set off fireworks and chanted stuff, but for the most part a good demo was had by all.      

Braverman, meanwhile, got her wish on Monday and was duly sacked. If the Conservatives lose the next election, she will be a shoo-in for the leadership of her defeated party. The political wilderness beckons.

Braverman, meanwhile, got her wish on Monday and was duly sacked. If the Conservatives lose the next election, she will be a shoo-in for the leadership of her defeated party. The political wilderness beckons.

Cameron's desperate return to UK politics 

But what of Cameron, now back in the cabinet room among the kiddywinks? Friends are not quite as surprised – nay, flabbergasted – by his return as the pundits have been. He has often complained that he misses the political life, and clearly he had his career unnaturally truncated by the result of his own referendum.

According to the Guardian (13 November), these friends insist he still has his political mojo. His old mate and former Chancellor, George Osborne, has remarked that "There was a bit of him… that died inside, which was the public service element – which he tried to fill with other things like his very important work for Alzheimer's, but it wasn't the same. And now I think, when I was speaking to him about it, it's like the sound of the trumpet, back on the playing field, the political playing fields, and serving your country."

Ah yes, the playing fields. Always nice to be reminded that Dave went to Eton, the place where all England's battles were won. Well, the Battle of Waterloo, at least. Other battles, such as the one Cameron joined in Libya, or the one he was prevented from joining in Syria, were not won. The battle over remaining in the European Union, that wasn't won either. Then there was the idea of a Golden Age for Sino-British relations that led to a photo-op drinking a pint with the Chinese president. That one was well and truly lost, though Cameron has been linked to a planned port in Sri Lanka that would assist Beijing's trade ambitions. You just can't teach them new tricks.

The odd thing is how, dazzled as they were by the apparition as it got out of the black car and walked purposefully, frowningly, grown-uply towards Number Ten, is how little consideration the pundits gave to his disappointing record abroad. They were very interested in the domestic implications, the lurch towards the centre his appointment represented, that kind of thing, but he was being anointed Foreign Secretary, not the revered relic of another age, nor a token old codger to appease the pensioners, nor even (as one ally claimed) a consigliere to a youthful Prime Minister, whatever one of those was.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signs messages and prayers for Israel at a Jewish school in London, Britain October 16, 2023.

Here Sunak was, ennobling and smuggling into his cabinet unelected as Foreign Secretary a man with one of the worst CVs when it came of foreign affairs since, well, Lord North. Here he was, the man who had failed spectacularly, squaring up to take over from James Cleverly and deal with a massive crisis in the Middle East.

As an ex-MP, Cameron's only possible means of entering the cabinet was as a Lord, and this meant he would not be able to answer to the House of Commons – peers are not allowed in. Bizarre as it sounds, MPs are not even allowed to refer to the Upper House except as 'the other place'. So, there would be no accountability for a man who one Israeli newspaper referred to as the best friend to Israel of any prime minister in history.

As Rory Stewart has observed, there used to be Arabists in the Foreign Office, fluent in Arabic and with a tendency to favour the Arab side in any argument. Call it Lawrence of Arabia's legacy. That had all ended by 2010, by which time twelve of the fifteen members of the team couldn't speak a word of Arabic, a development welcomed by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, who considered the Foreign Office suitably cleansed. Who knows, maybe Cameron is the culmination of this trend. Any change to Britain's unwavering support of Israel seems unlikely.    

Still, looking on the bright side, ol' blue eyes will finally have a chance to prove he's got his mojo back. There will be limitless opportunities to enjoy the sound of his own voice and travel great distances to conferences, where he can stride up to members of the fourth estate, excitable pundits included, in the grand lobbies of spacious halls, and say something important-sounding with knitted brow, then dash off before anyone has a chance to ask an awkward question.

He almost managed it even in his first interview as Foreign Secretary. Bit nervous at first, but he'll soon get the hang of it again. Asked a probing question about his financial affairs, he swerved to avoid it with much of the old grace and agility. When asked a second time, he pointed out that all that had been dealt with by a parliamentary committee and was in the past. Then, on the pretext that he had work to do, he dashed out of shot with a breezy goodbye.  

Ah, the nostalgia of it, to see an old pro like Dave at work. With all that experience in Libya, he'll have no trouble sorting out the mess in the Middle East. Indeed, his appointment disproves the old axiom that every political career ends in failure. Careers may fail, spectacularly, but who says they actually have to end?

As Rory Stewart has observed, there used to be Arabists in the Foreign Office, fluent in Arabic and with a tendency to favour the Arab side in any argument. Call it Lawrence of Arabia's legacy. 

The coda to the reshuffle story was yet to come. When she was asked about being sacked from Rishi Sunak's cabinet, Suella Braverman said she would have more to say in due course. This may be the only example in her entire career of understatement.

The 'more to say' emerged a day later in the form of a long and vitriolic open letter to the prime minister detailing her grievances. For this she received a reprimand from Michael Howard, who rounded on her for the 'tirade of abuse' and declared, with oracular certainty, that she would 'be forgotten.' (For those readers who may not immediately recollect, Michael Howard was once leader of the Conservative Party). Writing in the Telegraph, he thundered:   

"Thinking of the common good requires one to put the common good before personal ambition and pique. Braverman has failed to live by those words. The government is better off without her."

So, what was it about this missive – or, more properly speaking, this missile – that so enraged this normally placid man of conscience.

Read more: Is Sunak already doomed or can he turn things around?

Well, it was certainly lengthy. Towards the end, in a rare moment of self-knowledge, she admitted 'I may not have always found the right words, but I have always striven to give voice to the quiet majority.' It's a curious fact that those who express themselves on behalf of less vocal individuals have a tendency to shout, presumably as a way of compensating for all that collective silence.  

After a few conventional words of thanks to those who keep us safe, she begins the tirade by implying that Sunak would never have become prime minister without her backing, and she had wrung 'a series of written pledges' from him before lending her support – pledges which he has 'manifestly and repeatedly failed to deliver on.' These include undertakings on migration, the small boats, the Northern Ireland protocol and (rather incongruously) 'statutory guidance to schools that protects biological sex, safeguards single sex spaces, and empowers parents to know what is being taught to their children'.

Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's Labour Party, speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions, at the House of Commons in London

She is frankly at a loss to explain – but nonetheless she gives it her best shot – why Sunak has failed so dismally. It could be down to his magical thinking, or perhaps his wishful thinking, though it might as easily be attributed to his habits of equivocation, cowardice, treachery. The list seems endless. In fact, it's really more than her powers of mind-reading or psychology can manage, to determine just what is so wrong with the man, but suffice to say she feels utterly, gut-wrenchingly betrayed. For crying out, he seems to believe that occupying the office is an end in itself!

'I have become hoarse…'

How rarely one considers the occupational hazards of being opinionated.

'I have become hoarse urging you to consider legislation to ban the hate marches and help stem the rising tide of racism, intimidation and terrorist glorification threatening community cohesion.'

You've got to admire the rollicking sense of humour here, coming from a woman who has been widely accused of divisive rhetoric.

Now, however, she administers the coup de grâce:

'Someone needs to be honest: your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time. You need to change course urgently.'

Who knows if this epistle will help or hinder Suella Braverman's bid to lead the party. Some say she has overshot badly and that no one will strike a deal with her again, for fear of receiving a similar barrage the moment they deviate from its terms.

Others praise her candour. It's fair to say Rishi Sunak is not short of detractors. You wonder which of Suella's criticisms stings him the most. My suspicion is, the ones that remind him of Sir Keir Starmer's 'inaction man' gibe.  

Back in 2005, Michael Howard fought a General Election with billboards asking the British public "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" According to David Wood, one of the creative minds behind an earlier Tory campaign, Suella Braverman has been sacked 'for saying things that most of the nation think'.

As it turned out, Michael Howard was not tuned into the national psyche. The public weren't thinking what he was thinking and he lost the election. It remains to be seen whether the former home secretary's telepathic powers are more reliable.

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