Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cameron makes surprise UK cabinet comeback in Sunak reboot

Britain's former Prime Minister, David Cameron, leaves 10, Downing Street after being appointed Foreign Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle on Nov. 13, 2023, in London.    (Carl Court/Getty Images Europe/TNS)
Joe Mayes, Alex Wickham, Kitty Donaldson and Emily Ashton, Bloomberg News

Rishi Sunak appointed David Cameron as UK foreign secretary, a shock return to government for a man who led the UK between 2010 and 2016 but whose legacy is defined by his decision to call the Brexit referendum.

Cameron replaces James Cleverly, who became home secretary to fill the post vacated by Suella Braverman, Sunak’s office said a statement Monday. Braverman’s firing alone would have been a seismic political move in Westminster; adding Cameron to the mix takes it to another level.

The prime minister may be trying to win over more centrist voters who were key to bringing Cameron to power in 2010 and to his follow-up general election win in 2015. That sense is amplified by doing it on the same day as the departure of Braverman, the pugilistic politician Sunak brought in to mollify the right-wing of his party on taking office just over a year ago.

Cameron’s appointment “put to bed” the “right-wing lurch” of the Tory party, Michael Heseltine, deputy prime minister from 1995 to 1997, told Times Radio.

But it is a dramatic gamble for Sunak as he tries to overturn a 20-point deficit to the Labour Party as time ticks down to a nationwide election expected next year. Cameron quit as premier in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, and having called the vote and then campaigned against Brexit and lost, he is unpopular with both Remainers and Leavers.

It’s also unclear how the appointment helps Sunak keep hold of the pro-Brexit coalition of voters who backed Boris Johnson in 2019. The prime minister’s strategy has been to try to blend his top team to appeal to both camps. With Braverman’s firing, though, he’s effectively opened up two fronts with the right of his governing party.

Early reaction to the reshuffle illustrated Tory divisions. Some more centrist MPs welcomed the move including Damian Green, who said on the social media platform X it is “very good news. A solid center-right government is what the country needs.” Former premier Theresa May wrote on the same platform that Cameron’s “immense experience on the international stage will be invaluable.”

But pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned whether the appointment of Cameron will antagonize some Tory voters and push more of them to the right-wing Reform party.

Just five weeks ago in his keynote speech to the Conservative annual conference, Sunak had lumped the UK’s political direction under Cameron and other predecessors as 30 years of collective failure. He promised to “lead in a different way, because that is the only way to create the sort of change in our politics and in our country that we all desperately want to see.”

It is unclear how Cameron fits that promise or Sunak’s election campaign: “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future.” Just 24% of UK adults view Cameron favorably, compared to 45% who see him unfavorably, polling company Savanta said Monday, circulating a survey it conducted about a month ago.

It’s a perilous time for Sunak, who has spent months appeasing the political right by watering down the UK’s green agenda and adopting a more pro-motorist stance. Braverman was part of that push to shore up the Tory base.

But while allied in their social conservatism and on issues like immigration, Braverman became a liability to Sunak as her language became more strident. Her remark that homeless people sleep on streets as a “lifestyle choice” angered the same type of Tories that Cameron appealed to as leader.

The breaking point appeared to come after Braverman accused London’s Metropolitan Police of bias over its handling of pro-Palestinian protests. Her intervention was blamed for drawing out far-right groups that clashed with officers in London and led to 145 arrests on Saturday.

Ousting her is likely to lead to Braverman becoming a fierce critic of the administration at a crucial time. The Supreme Court is due to rule on Wednesday on the legality of the government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, a plan championed by both Braverman and Sunak.

If it rules against the government, some Tory MPs are likely to ramp up demands for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights — another totemic issue that divides the governing party. Braverman is among those who have voiced her support for doing so, and the risk for Sunak is that he has now created a martyr for the cause.

So the politics surrounding Sunak were febrile even before the Cameron announcement. The prime minister will likely see it as a chance to move on from the first phase of his administration spent trying to stabilize the UK economy after his predecessor Liz Truss’s disastrous tenure. Therese Coffey, who served as Truss’s deputy, said Monday she was stepping down as environment secretary.

There is little expectation that Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, who Sunak also inherited from the Truss era, will be moved on.

Whatever moves Sunak makes, the Cameron news will dominate. In a statement on his new role, the former premier said the UK will “stand by our allies” and “make sure our voice is heard” on challenges from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Yet Cameron was notably dovish toward China during his premiership, a position that is now at adds with the increasingly anti-China sentiment in the Conservative Party. In 2020 Cameron was involved in efforts to raise a UK-China investment fund, but the effort struggled to gain traction.

“It’s hard to see who wins from the appointment except Beijing,” said Luke de Pulford, executive director of an inter-parliamentary group that campaigns on issues relating to China.

Cameron was also the subject of controversy in 2021 when it emerged he had aggressively lobbied the government on behalf of the now-defunct Greensill Capital, the lender for which he was an adviser and shareholder. In his statement, Cameron also acknowledged he had publicly disagreed with Sunak on issues such as the recent cancellation of the flagship high-speed HS2 rail line.

Under Britain’s unwritten constitution someone must be either a member of Parliament or sit in the House of Lords to act as a government minister. Cameron has been made a life peer so he can take the role.

“It’s a pretty desperate, even absurd move which also will annoy a whole bunch of Tory MPs — in part because they despise Cameron, in part because it suggests Sunak thinks there’s so little talent in the Commons that he’s had to put a scandal-ridden former PM in the Lords in order to inject some supposed quality into his Cabinet,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University.