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The politics of David Cameron's appointment

Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge, Sociology Lecturer at the University of Derby, explores the rationale behind the surprise appointment of David Cameron in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle.

By Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge - 15 November 2023

The appointment of former Prime Minister David Cameron to the office of Foreign Secretary surprised Westminster this week. In doing so, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was able to completely upend the media narrative about his premiership. 

Before this new appointment made the headlines, it looked like Sunak was in for a politically painful day. For a week, what to do with the (now former) Home Secretary Suella Braverman had put the Prime Minister under a great deal of pressure. Her comments, dubbing the demonstrations in support of Palestinians as ‘hate marches’, had ratcheted up tensions.

Furthermore, The Times published an article last week in which she complained the Metropolitan Police were guilty of two-tier policing for refusing to ban last weekend’s mobilisation in London. This was not cleared with the Downing Street communications team beforehand and amounted to an act of open insubordination. Meanwhile, the pro-Palestinian march of approximately 800,000 passed largely without incident, while a few hundred self-described counter-protesters got involved in pitch battles with the police.

Facing a dilemma

Sunak, therefore, was on the horns of a dilemma. Keeping Braverman in post could suggest he was afraid of the reactions of her supporters on the backbenches and was therefore prepared to stick by his appointments come what may. This ran the risk of him being seen as too weak, and indeed this has been a charge Keir Starmer has lately been putting to him.

It has also been widely observed that Braverman was appointed because she was prepared to say things about race, immigration, and public order issues Sunak was not prepared to say himself. In other words, she was politically useful. On the other hand, sacking her while under political pressure might suggest he buckled under it. For example, it could be argued Sunak has not only capitulated to the murmurings among Conservative MPs and Labour efforts at embarrassing him, but also giving in to the new dynamics the sizeable and growing Palestinian solidarity movement has introduced into politics. Neither were ideal grounds from which to retake the political initiative, so why not dispense with both and change the conversation entirely? And it has worked. Instead of talking about sacking Braverman, broadcast news, the press, and social media are leading with the appointment of Cameron.

Rare occurrence

It is a rarity for any former party leader to be reappointed to a front-bench position. We would have to go back to 1970 for the last time a former Prime Minister served in a leading office of state. On that occasion, Edward Heath brought in Alec Douglas-Home to also serve as foreign secretary. Though the question remains. Why? Cameron obviously has not returned to frontline politics purely to serve the headline writers.  

It seems Sunak has made three calculations.

Firstly, James Cleverly – until this week the Foreign Secretary – is seen in and around Westminster as a safe pair of hands. In his role, he has stuck to the government’s line on Israel/Palestine without being hyperbolic or given to inflaming fraught situations. For Sunak, he is the ideal becalming presence in the Home Office that can smooth over relations with the police and the community relations Braverman upset. Likewise, Cameron works at the Foreign Office because he is recognised on the world stage (though not always positively,) is experienced, and again, is a known quantity. Second, among Conservative supporters who were thinking of switching their support to Starmer’s Labour at the next election, Sunak is hoping that bringing Cameron back signals a new seriousness. And thirdly, because Cameron is not an MP and was hastily ennobled by the King so he can take up the post, he is relatively insulated from democratic pressures. He will be taking questions in the House of Lords as opposed to the Commons, where a junior minister is going to have to answer them on his behalf. Nor is Cameron beholden to catering for constituents. On the most fraught foreign policy issue of the day, Sunak has moved to narrow the avenue for scrutiny and accountability.

Cameron's legacy

Will this appointment change things? With pollsters consistently giving Labour between a 17 and 24-point lead in voter surveys and having stubbornly sat in that range since Sunak became Prime Minister last October, it is very unlikely. While some might appreciate his accomplished and smooth style of delivery, for more liberally inclined Conservative supporters he will forever be the leader who caused Brexit to happen and walked away when the referendum came up with Leave. And for those whose politics are more social conservative, he took the Tories into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, let equal marriage happen, and oversaw the continued erosion of ‘traditional’ values.

Sunak has been able to change the conversation and avoided immediate political pain, but shifting his electoral chances in a more positive direction is going to be much harder.

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About the author

Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge
Course Director, Business, Law, and Social Sciences

Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge is Course Director for the School of Law and Social Sciences and Programme Lead for Sociology. Prior to joining the University in 2013, he previously had worked for a Member of Parliament. A regular commentator on current affairs, his teaching and research interests reflect these concerns.

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