What will the return of David Cameron mean for UK foreign policy?

Britain's former prime minister, David Cameron, leaves 10 Downing Street after being appointed foreign secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle on 13 November 2023 in London, England. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.
Britain's former prime minister, David Cameron, leaves 10 Downing Street after being appointed foreign secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle on 13 November 2023 in London, England. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

There are many reshuffles that provoke surprise; there are some that prompt bemusement as well. Rishi Sunak’s decision to install David Cameron as the seventh foreign secretary in seven years is one that does both. The former prime minister will bring undoubted strengths into the top team and to the UK’s relationships abroad. The concern must be, however, that these could be outweighed by the controversial legacy he brings too. And none of that says that he can bring back voters for his party at home.

He brings one clear advantage as Sunak’s new foreign secretary. As prime minister, he was comfortable on the world stage and congenial in the relationships he formed. Too much so, in one sense; he misinterpreted the cordial discussions he had with then German chancellor Angela Merkel and expected concessions on immigration that the European Union never produced.

But there are many countries in relationships that are crucial for the UK who would welcome the arrival of Cameron as a heavyweight and moderate foreign secretary. That matters, with conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine and a volatile US political climate.

It is possible that at home, his consensual tone (which helped knit together a coalition with the Liberal Democrats) reassures traditional moderate Tories who have been increasingly alarmed at the hard-right language used by Suella Braverman, sacked as home secretary in this reshuffle. But the range of voters to which Sunak is trying to appeal is so great that this benefit may be small.

Top of the list of disadvantages is Brexit. Some Brexit voters in the UK will remember that Cameron argued for Remain; many within the UK and abroad will remember him simply as the prime minister who chose to hold a referendum he never contemplated losing and comprehensively upended the country’s international relations.

Cameron’s broader legacy in international relations is also mixed, especially regarding the most pressing issue of his new brief: the Middle East.

A 2016 Foreign Affairs Select Committee report criticized his decision to intervene in Libya in March 2011 as not being based on ‘accurate intelligence,’ and singled him out for blame for failing to develop a coherent strategy there.

His authority was also damaged in 2013 when MPs, including many of his own, voted against his plan to take part in military strikes against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

China is another potential problem for Cameron. He is still closely associated with a ‘golden era’ policy of courting China that now looks naïve and shortsighted to many in his party. Since leaving office, he briefly chaired the China-UK Investment Fund – an appointment that was criticized by the Intelligence and Security Committee as being part of a trend of ex-leaders and prominent figures lending credibility to China’s investments and image in the world.

China is the area where the UK government’s foreign policy has shifted most dramatically since his time as PM. The UK’s fundamental orientation – from seeing the country as offering economic opportunity to presenting a strategic challenge – has changed. Cameron will need to be clear, early in his tenure, on whether he too has made that shift.

Then there is the controversy around his advocacy for Greensill Capital, a financial services firm which became insolvent, and where Cameron had petitioned ministers to consider it for government support in the pandemic. An inquiry found he had not broken any lobbying rules or acted illegally.

On top of this is the manner of his appointment, by giving him a place in the Lords to enable him to take a place in the Cabinet. It is the first time since Alec Douglas-Home in the 1970s that a prime minister has returned to Cabinet after leaving office. It is entirely within the rules but given growing public scepticism about the basis for appointments to the House of Lords, it may strike an anachronistic tone.

Finally, there is the sheer volatility which the reshuffle engenders. James Cleverly, foreign secretary since 6 September 2022, was just getting into his stride. The role requires building close relationships with counterparts across the world and high commissioners and ambassadors within the UK, as well as knowing the staff of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

If there is a single reason for the recognized weaknesses of British government in delivering what has been promised, it is the lack of expert knowledge in ministers and civil servants, who rotate between jobs often every year or two. This move, designed to fix problems elsewhere in the Cabinet, compounds that problem.

Bronwen Maddox, Director and Chief Executive.

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