Cameron’s Comeback: Looks are Deceiving

Like it or not, domestic politics often come down to shrewdly controlling the narrative. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak achieved this by appointing David Cameron as Foreign Secretary just as he fired Home Secretary Suella Braverman last Monday. Consequently, the former PM’s return to office dominated the headlines instead of articles concerning the civil war between the centrist and right-wing of the Conservative party. Foreign affairs require a similar yet different type of shrewd communication. This begs the question, what does Cameron bring to the table?

Cameron is a talented orator and looks like he belongs on the world stage. The speech that he delivered without notes at the 2005 party conference made him win the Tory leadership contest. We have been reminded of his sleek appearance and smooth and confident delivery in the last few days. In a political climate where populism far too often triumphs, Cameron’s cool and collected demeanour offers a refreshing contrast.

His experience and contacts will be invaluable. With the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine raging on and hostility with China ramping up, knowing who your friends are matters. Europe should welcome Cameron back. In spite of Brexit, he always believed in remaining in the EU and lacks the anti-European demagoguery of the right-wing of his party. Zelenskyy welcoming Cameron with open arms within three days of his appointment indicates the continent’s warm sentiment.

His worldview as prime minister was largely shaped by the success of the liberal world order during the 1980s and 1990s

His lack of future political ambitions, having already been prime minister, is also reassuring. Sunak has enough vultures circling above his head. The unconventional arrangement of selecting a lord instead of an MP to the cabinet will further free up Cameron’s time to purely focus on foreign affairs. Unfortunately, being a lord allows Cameron to avoid regular questioning by MPs, amplifying criticism that he is an unelected minister appointed by an unelected prime minister.

Although enviable in many regards, Cameron’s personal qualities bear responsibility for Brexit – the greatest British foreign policy blunder post-WW2. His overconfidence in his ability to convince voters, electoral ambitions and wish to settle the question of Europe once and for all within the Conservative party made him call the referendum. That disastrous decision remains the root cause of the fractious political climate we live in today.

What about Cameron’s foreign policy ideology and legacy? His worldview as prime minister was largely shaped by the success of the liberal world order during the 1980s and 1990s. In this era, the world was becoming more prosperous and democratic. The underpinning logic was simple: if the West kept trading, engaging and – when needed – intervening in the rest of the world, the end of history was in sight. The consensus read that countries like China and Russia would succumb to the forces of globalisation and become more liberal and democratic.

Concerning Cameron’s actual foreign policy legacy, it is nothing to brag about. He was a leading voice in support of Nato’s intervention in Libya that aided the overthrow of Gaddafi, which left the country in ruin. He spoke vocally about giving Ukraine security guarantees after the annexation of Crimea but let France and Germany lead the diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict. He advocated launching airstrikes against the Assad regime after it used chemical weapons, but he lost the vote in the House of Commons. He pursued some successful policies. For instance, he increased spending on foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP to meet the UN targets and pioneered training Ukrainian soldiers on British soil. But failures still outweigh the successes as evident by Sunak struggling to name any when questioned during PMQs. 

Perhaps most pressing is Cameron’s naive view of China. During his premiership, he bragged about a “golden-era” of Chinese-British relations which saw trade and investment soar. He and Xi Jinping even shared a beer during a state visit. Yet trading and investing in China have not stopped the regime from becoming more confrontational and repressive. To be fair to Cameron, most mainstream leaders from Obama to Merkel largely shared his view at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 and we are too often guilty of historical revisionism to fit today’s political reality.

his seemingly attractive qualities and his record have done far more harm than good

However, either out of personal greed or continued naivety, his views on China seem to remain the same post-premiership. He briefly chaired and failed to set up a one-billion-pound China-UK Investment Fund. As recently as September, he flew to the Middle East to drum up support for a Chinese-backed infrastructure project in Sri Lanka. These ill-advised business dealings are part of a more problematic trend. Cameron lobbied the government on behalf of Greensill Capital, a defunct financial services firm, to change the rules to obtain loans during the pandemic. Although a parliamentary inquiry found that no rules had been broken, such behaviour is unbefitting for a former prime minister.

Ultimately, at first glance Cameron’s appointment might be heralded as a return to sensibility and competence. Do not fall for the government’s PR stunt. If you scratch beneath the surface, you are reminded that his seemingly attractive qualities and his record have done far more harm than good. The only conclusion should be that the Conservative Party is in great need of renewal.

Image Credit: David Cameron outside No 10 by A1Cafel, licensed under OGL v1.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: David Cameron speaking at a lectern, outside 10 Downing Street.