• Reuters

Sunak Gambles on Return of Cameron to Win over Moderate Voters

REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
Britain’s former Prime Minister and newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Cameron walks outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain November 13, 2023.

LONDON (Reuters) – Few expected David Cameron’s return to government, but his appointment is one that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes will signal to wavering supporters that the Conservatives are not lurching to the right to win an election expected next year.

As well as firing his interior minister, Suella Braverman, after she published an unauthorized article criticizing the police’s handling of protests, Sunak has used a wider reshuffle to bring back the prime minister who campaigned to remain in the European Union in a referendum on membership he called in 2016.

It’s a risky strategy – while welcomed by centrist lawmakers, the party’s right senses the end of their increased dominance, built during the wars over EU membership, with one fearing the appointment amounted to a “Brexit surrender.”

“He has appointed the man who led the ‘remain’ campaign and who has got huge problems over his association with Greensill,” said a Conservative lawmaker on the right of the party, referring to Cameron’s lobbying work for a now-collapsed supply chain finance firm.

“Is he spoiling for a fight with Conservatives?”

The decision to fire Braverman removes from the cabinet one of the most prominent supporters of leaving the EU and means even more of Sunak’s top ministers supported remaining in the bloc in 2016. Out of the 29 cabinet roles, at least 16 backed remaining in the EU, compared with 10 who supported leaving.

Sunak backed Brexit.

Since he became Britain’s third prime minister in as many months, Sunak has tried to keep all wings of the party happy – reappointing Braverman, a favorite on the right, to her interior minister role just a week after she was fired in the final days of his predecessor Liz Truss’s brief premiership.

He has also tried to portray himself as a tough decision-maker and agent of change, ready to take on “establishment attitudes” on the environment and crime despite the Conservatives having been in power for more than a decade.

Sunak’s party still languishes around 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party before an election that must happen by January 2025.

He has resisted the right’s calls to cut taxes before the next election, and his moves could mean Sunak creates a hostile and vocal lobby sitting behind him in parliament.

Several of them believe that the party membership, which did not elect Sunak as leader, want what they call traditional Conservative policies and felt Braverman was on-message with her tough approach to tackling illegal immigration and crime.

FORWARD, NOT BACK?

But centrist lawmakers believe Cameron’s appointment is inspired, saying he not only brings a wealth of government experience but is also seen as a moderate, one who can reassure traditional supporters largely in affluent southern England.

“It reassures mainstream Tories,” one Conservative lawmaker said on condition of anonymity. Another pointed out that he won two elections, although in his first victory he depended on the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government.

The appointment has done little to unite a party that has taken in-fighting to new levels over the years, particularly since Cameron announced he was holding the EU referendum.

Another Conservative lawmaker said the appointment of Cameron was about trying to differentiate Sunak’s government from the economic chaos under Truss and the scandal-ridden premiership of her predecessor Boris Johnson.

“It is a fascinating and smart move,” he said.

But as he was talking, he asked a former cabinet minister to the right of the party for her thoughts. She replied: “I thought we were meant to be looking forward, not back.”

Some party commentators said it showed Sunak did not believe he could recreate the circumstances in 2019, when Johnson persuaded many voters in traditional Labour-supporting regions in northern and central England to vote Conservative for the first time.

In any election the Conservatives will take on not only Labour, but also the centrist Liberal Democrats in southern England, where some lawmakers are fearful the Conservatives were once again being seen as “the nasty party.”

“In many ways, David Cameron’s modern conservatism is the very reason I’m here in parliament today,” wrote Dehenna Davison, a former minister in the housing department who previously announced she was stepping down at the next election.

With few Conservatives believing they can win the next election, others might follow her in preparing for a new job.

The reshuffle also prompted a number of junior ministers to resign their posts in departments including health, transport and education. Ministers who lose their parliamentary seats at an election face restrictions on what jobs they can immediately take. Those without ministerial positions do not.

Keiran Pedley, Ipsos Director of Politics, said it was a “fair critique” that Sunak’s strategy was unclear, and that the next election would be fought over who the public trust to fix the cost of living crisis and public services.

“At the moment, they think that’s Labour. For the Conservatives to stand a chance, they need to change that perception, and it’s hard to imagine how bringing David Cameron back does that,” he said.