After seven years away, Cameron’s appointment shocks Britain

November 20, 2023 11:28
Britain's former Prime Minister and newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Cameron (Photo: Reuters)

Last week the British people were stunned to learn that their disgraced Prime Minister David Cameron had returned to public office after seven years in the wilderness, to become Foreign Secretary.

Conservative Premier from 2010 to 2016, Cameron was guilty of one of the biggest policy mistakes of post-1945 Britain -- holding a referendum in June 2016 that led to the country leaving the European Union. This caused a flight of capital and talent and seriously damaged the economy.

Humiliated, Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and from his seat in the House of Commons. His record since then has been mixed. He campaigned for Alzheimer’s research. In 2018, he became an adviser to Australian Lex Greensill and his Greensill Capital with a salary of more than US$1 million a year. It collapsed in 2021.

Later a British Parliamentary committee issued a scathing report about how Cameron had unsuccessfully lobbied former colleagues, including then Chancellor and now Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to change the rules to allow Greensill Capital to obtain more generous state loans.

In 2017, Cameron set up a US$1-billion UK-China investment fund and asked China Investment Corporation to put in money. But he had to abandon the fund in 2021, for want of investors. During his tenure as Premier, he was one of the main architects of economic austerity, which has damaged the quality of Britain’s public services, including hospitals, schools and the police.

Since he is no longer a member of Parliament, the government had to swiftly make him a member of the House of Lords, in order to serve in the Cabinet. There he will not have to answer questions from MPs in the House of Commons.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that Cameron’s appointment was a measure of the desperation that surrounded the government. Pippa Crerar, political editor of the Guardian, said that Cameron’s appointment aimed to attract centrist voters who will be critical in the outcome of the forthcoming general election.

The Conservatives have to call a general election before January 2025. An opinion poll in mid-October put the opposition Labour Party at 44 per cent, against 28 per cent for the Conservatives.
“He has been under-employed recently and was eager to take on a high-profile job, especially one that would enable him to improve his name among the public,” Crerar said.

He hopes the post will rehabilitate his political reputation, leave a positive legacy and give him a better chance to earn senior roles at multinational organisations in future.

Cameron is only the second former Prime Minister since World War Two to return to the Cabinet in another post. From 1970 to 1974, Alex Douglas-Home also served as Foreign Minister after having been Premier from 1963 to 1964.

Cameron brings many skills to the position. He is well-spoken and eloquent. Himself a “Remainer” who opposed Brexit, he has contacts among the European elite and a good grasp of foreign policy issues.

On his first trip abroad since taking office, he went last Thursday to Kyiv to meet Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and also travelled to the southern port city of Odesa, a regular target of Russian air strikes.

He stressed London's continued support for Ukraine, now in its 21st month of war with Russia and with no end in sight. "What I want to say by being here is that we will continue to give you the moral support, the diplomatic support... but above all the military support that you need not just this year and next year, but however long it takes," he said.

The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East will be the two most urgent issues he has to deal with in the short term.

The Chinese government is delighted at his appointment. An editorial in the Beijing News last week said, during his Premiership, Britain was the first Western country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015. “In the seven years since leaving politics, Cameron has worked on the Belt and Road project and visited China several times,” it said. “It is hoped that, with Cameron, the momentum of constructive engagement between China and the UK can continue.”

But the British sentiment toward China has changed. The Conservative Party is split between those who regard it as a security threat and those who want better trade and economic relations. Without a consensus, Cameron will find it hard to pursue his former policies.

Luke de Pulford, convenor of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, described Cameron’s appointment as “incomprehensible and retrograde. Cameron is out of step with Parliament and the country on China. Look forward to him declaring him exactly how much he has been paid to represent China’s interests since leaving Number 10.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.