David Cameron, Who Divided the U.K. with Brexit, Is Back in the Cabinet

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 – David Cameron, the former British leader who forced the Brexit referendum, returned to government as foreign secretary on Monday in a major political shake-up.

In bringing back Cameron, a moderate, and firing right-wing Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is tacking back toward the center ahead of an election year. But while Braverman is a lightning-rod figure – who stoked tensions in recent weeks by saying police were too sympathetic to pro-Palestinian protesters – Cameron is a reminder of even greater divisions within British politics. He enshrined splits within the Conservative Party and provoked people throughout society to define themselves as Leavers or Remainers.

Cameron will take over as top diplomat from James Cleverly, who has in turn been tapped as the new home secretary, overseeing domestic security, law enforcement and immigration.

It is rare for a former prime minister to make such a prominent return to government, and his appointment caught political observers off guard. As Cameron walked out of Downing Street, one reporter shouted: “Are you here to show Rishi Sunak how it’s done?”

Unlike his successors – Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – Cameron did not stay on as a member of Parliament after he resigned. Nor has he been prominent from the sidelines in the manner of former Tory leader John Major – or Johnson since he was pressured to resigned his seat.

Cameron’s case is unusual, too, in that senior cabinet jobs in Britain are typically filled by elected lawmakers from the House of Commons. He can serve, though, because Sunak’s government on Monday named him to the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber. He can now be referred to as Lord Cameron.

“It’s a very odd appointment,” said Steven Fielding, an expert in British politics and professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham. “Cameron is hated by significant elements of the party, particularly hard-right Brexiteers, and with the electorate, he’s associated with austerity and all kinds of unfortunate lobbying.”

In July 2021, a parliamentary inquiry found that Cameron had displayed a “significant lack of judgment” when he privately lobbied ministers on behalf of a financial services company that he was advising.

Fielding noted that Sunak has tried to reboot his premiership by pitching himself as an agent of change. But bringing on Cameron, who served as prime minister from 2010 to 2016 – nearly half of the 13 years that the Conservatives have been in power – could muddle that narrative.

“Sunak has promoted someone who is not a threat to Sunak personally, that’s the only rational explanation,” Fielding said.

Others said Cameron would bring clout and experience to the role.

Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said in an emailed statement that Cameron as prime minister was “comfortable on the world stage and congenial in the relationships he formed,” and that there are many countries who will welcome the appointment of a “heavyweight and moderate foreign secretary.”

“That matters, with conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine and a volatile U.S. political climate,” she said. But his strengths in the role could be “outweighed by the controversial legacy he brings.”

Cameron wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “While I have been out of front-line politics for the last seven years, I hope that my experience – as Conservative Leader for eleven years and Prime Minister for six – will assist me in helping the prime minister.”

He added that though he “disagreed with some individual decisions” by the current prime minister, Sunak is “strong and capable.”

In Sunak’s first major foreign policy speech as prime minister last year, he referenced the Cameron administration’s approach to China, saying the “so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform.”

Sunak made a number of other changes to his government on Monday. But the other big development of the day – the sacking of Braverman – surprised no one.

Braverman has been at the center of a political storm involving Israel-Gaza-war demonstrations. She characterized pro-Palestinian protests as “hate marches,” suggested that waving a Palestinian flag could in certain contexts be cause for arrest and accused her own police force of being too pro-Palestinian. She articulated some of these views last week in an article for the Times of London, which was not approved by Downing Street. That put pressure on Sunak to take a decisive stand.

Braverman, who hails from the right wing of the Conservative Party, is no stranger to controversy and has made headlines for calling homelessness a “lifestyle choice” and for her enthusiastic backing of plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

She has taken positions that make her stand out from the government’s other ministers, with rhetoric and policies that appeal to some of the Conservative base while inflaming debate elsewhere.

Commentators have speculated on whether she could benefit from leaving the top leadership team and distancing herself from Sunak’s government ahead of what is expected to be a disastrous election. She could then set herself up for a possible run for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

“Nobody is daft enough to want to become leader now,” Fielding said. But some of her comments, he said, can be seen as “catnip” for the Conservative Party members who would help pick the new leader of the Conservative Party should a vacancy open up.