If you, like me, thought the headline story from today’s much-touted morning reshuffle would be the exit of controversialist-in-chief Suella Braverman, you were very wrong indeed.
Rishi Sunak has run roughshod over the former home secretary’s long-trailed plans to style her sacking as an act of martyrdom for the “small boats”-stopping cause, with the sensational elevation of David Cameron to the post of foreign secretary.
Cameron’s comeback puts Jeremy Hunt’s unlikely return to government, having been appointed chancellor during the Trussite implosion last year, to shame. In fact, the move is beyond sensational: it makes Cameron just the second former prime minister to return to cabinet since the second world war; his only post-war forebear is Sir Alec Douglas Home, who served as PM from 1963-1964 and also went on to return as foreign secretary.
There are other parallels in recent history, of course. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who served as leader of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003, later became secretary of state for work and pensions from 2010 to 2016 under David Cameron.
William Hague, who served as leader of the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001, subsequently returned to the frontbench fold as Cameron’s foreign secretary. (In fact, one wonders if Hague, a close confidant of both Rishi Sunak and Cameron, was a key voice lobbying for the move. There is also the question of whether Hague, already in the House of Lords, had been asked first to serve, but declined).
On the topic of lobbying, Cameron’s accession is also remarkable because his post-premiership life has been rather more “chaotic”, than it has been “stable and strong”. In fact, after a period of relative quietude following his resignation as PM in the wake of the Brexit referendum, in March 2021 it was revealed that Cameron was employed by a firm called “Greensill Capital”. In late 2021, it was reported that, in his capacity as a Greensill employee, Cameron had sent several texts to then-chancellor Rishi Sunak and held a number of virtual meetings with permanent secretaries in Whitehall to try and secure coronavirus support payments for the firm.
Cameron, who following the 2009 controversy around MPs’ expense claims had mused that lobbying would be the next big political scandal, found himself at the centre of a classic lobbying furore. Of course, in his first speech as prime minister, Sunak pledged to lead a government of “integrity, accountability and professionalism”. Reminding the doubting public of Cameron’s role in a lobbying scandal which also implicated himself is therefore a bold, probably politically questionable, move.
James Cleverly’s sideways move to home secretary, replacing Braverman in the post, left a large gap in the government — which needed to be filled with serious political precision. Of course, the post of foreign secretary is much coveted, and it would have been a serious and questionable statement of intent for Sunak to boost a more junior ministerial ally, even someone already at the Foreign Office, to the role — especially at a time of such international tumult.
The most obvious option for Sunak would have been to promote a cabinet minister of slightly less seniority — but from this would have flowed a more far-reaching top-team switch-up. It had been rumoured that either of Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, or Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, could be handed the Home Office keys. But taking this approach would have seen Sunak on the look out for worthy replacements for their respective roles — and then for replacements for their replacements. It is easy to see how reshuffles can spiral out of a prime minister’s control, especially if a cabinet colleague declares they do not want to be moved.
By going over the heads of fellow cabinet colleagues and hoisting Cameron into the Foreign Office, Sunak avoids some difficult decisions — ones which would have naturally been implicated in party-management dilemmas and his responsibility to maintain an ideologically balanced team, especially in light of Braverman’s departure.
The decision to elevate Cameron also has clear constitutional consequences. Cameron’s elevation means that the UK’s foreign secretary will be sitting in the House of Lords, distant from the scrutiny of the House of Commons. At a time of major political instability internationally, it might be viewed as pertinent for a foreign secretary to be directly questioned by their shadow, in this instance David Lammy, in the House of Commons. But Cameron will be questioned in the Lords, instead, by the rather less well-known shadow ministerial duo of Baroness Smith and Lord Collins. (That said, Smith is herself a senior politician and has also served as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords since 2015).
Perhaps more significantly, Cameron’s move has clear ideological and factional implications. The removal of Suella Braverman was always going to be controversial in the Conservative Party — it is why Kemi Badenoch, a fellow standard bearer for the Conservative right, was touted as a potential replacement: a worthy sop to Sunak’s sceptics.
But, instead, Sunak has opted to shift Cleverly and elevate Cameron. It means we have gone from one of the four great offices of state being associated with the party right (with Cleverly more malleable politically), to zero. In fact, we have gone from one of the four great offices of state being associated with the “Cameroon” clique, with Jeremy Hunt as chancellor, to two — given the group’s namesake, Primus inter Pares of the notorious “Notting Hill set”, has now completed his sensational comeback.
Sure Sunak maintains a camera-friendly, mushy Cameroon outer-shell and seems far from a textbook Johnsonian populist; but it is still clear, in his championing of the Rwanda plan for instance, that Sunak is no mere “moderate”. So why play into the accusations that he is somehow a sly arch-wet? “Brand Rishi” will take more of a hit from his party right in the wake of this decision: with this reshuffle, Sunak has far from appeased his antagonists.
And what of Cameron’s potential effectiveness as foreign secretary? As a former prime minister, Cameron will have retained connections on the world stage — not all countries have cycled through five premiers in the past decade or so. Moreover, at the Covid inquiry recently, we saw that Cameron’s penchant for preparedness, disarming reasonableness and canny ability to sidestep a line of questioning has not — in his 7 long years separated from the political frontline — been lost.
And, in the end, it is clear Cameron will be an extremely loyal foreign secretary. He owes his comeback to Sunak — and will be forced to tread very carefully when it comes to moments of historic disagreement between the two. Indeed, Cameron has already tweeted: “Though I may have disagreed with some individual decisions, it is clear to me that Rishi Sunak is a strong and capable prime minister, who is showing exemplary leadership at a difficult time”. Cameron was a conspicuous critic of Sunak’s decision to scrap HS2’s second leg to Manchester, remember.
Thus, Sunak will be able to trust Cameron to perform his duties on the foreign stage dutifully and loyally — but it is the move’s implications at home, factionally and politically, that are rather more striking.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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