Rishi Sunak has chosen as his top diplomat a man who was the accidental midwife of Brexit and then had a starring role in the biggest British lobbying scandal in recent years.
David Cameron’s return to front-line politics as foreign secretary comes after seven years in the wilderness that started with his resignation as prime minister in 2016 in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
The surprise comeback is an attempt by Sunak to show that he has the political backbone to shift his cabinet to the centre ground and wrest power away from the Conservative rightwing.
But it will be the first time since the 1970s that a former UK prime minister has returned to another cabinet role, bringing all of their baggage with them too, including in Cameron’s case his career out of office.
Bronwen Maddox, director of the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House, said Cameron would bring “undoubted strengths” into the cabinet.
“The concern must be, however, that these could be outweighed by the controversial legacy he brings too.”
Cameron governed the UK from 2010 to 2016, much of it in a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The period was marked by severe cutbacks to public spending, termed “austerity”.
Although he increased his party’s Commons majority at the 2015 general election, Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016 ended his premiership.
Baroness Nicky Morgan, an ally of Cameron who served in his cabinet, said the ex-prime minister may have seen the job of foreign secretary as a chance to write a different ending to his political career.
“When you have to resign you never quite leave on your own terms. If you leave and come back, there’s a chance to do things a little differently, finish things off,” she added.
Downing Street refused to say when Sunak approached Cameron about becoming foreign secretary, but one official said former Tory leader William Hague acted as intermediary. The former prime minister was contacted on Wednesday last week, according to two people briefed on the appointment.
Cameron quit Downing Street within hours of his “Remain” campaign losing the Brexit vote. Two years later he became an adviser to Australian financier Lex Greensill with a salary of more than $1mn a year and an estimated $10mn of share options.
The Financial Times that year revealed that the former prime minister unsuccessfully lobbied former colleagues, including the then chancellor Sunak, to change the rules to allow Greensill Capital to obtain more generous state loans.
Cameron’s involvement in Greensill, which was the subject of a scathing report by the Treasury select committee, was not the only error in his post-Downing Street career.
As prime minister, Cameron was dovish towards China, hosting a state visit by President Xi Jinping and courting investment from Asia’s largest economy. After leaving government, he tried and failed to set up a $1bn UK-China investment fund.
Parliament’s intelligence and security committee in July said it was possible that Cameron’s role in the failed UK-China fund was “in some part engineered by the Chinese state to lend credibility to Chinese investment, as well as to the broader China brand”.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, said on Monday that Cameron’s appointment sent a signal to Beijing that “we are giving up on the human rights” of democracy campaigners in Hong Kong and those suffering genocide in Xinjiang.
In 2021, Cameron quit as a boardroom adviser to Bermuda-based tech company Afiniti whose boss had been accused of sexual harassment and assault, claims that were denied.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said Sunak’s decision to bring back a “scandal-hit, unelected former prime minister . . . has the stench of desperation”.
Cameron told broadcasters on Monday night: “As far as I’m concerned, that is all dealt with and in the past.” He said that his most important post-premiership role had been as president of Alzheimer’s Research.
As the former prime minister is not a serving MP, he has been made a Lord in order to take up the ministerial role — and will not have to answer MPs’ questions in the House of Commons.
He will be paid the Lords’ secretary of state salary of £104,360, but will not claim the £315-a-day Lords’ allowance nor his former prime ministerial allowance of £115,000 a year, according to government officials.
Cameron’s return is unorthodox but has historical precedents, including former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s return as foreign secretary in the 1970s. Cameron himself brought back former Tory leader William Hague to be his foreign secretary, although Hague had not been prime minister.
As foreign secretary, Cameron will have a heavily laden in-tray, including the war in Ukraine and Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
In 2010, Cameron sparked fury from Israel after saying its blockade had turned Gaza into a “prison camp”. In 2015, he sent British troops into Ukraine to help train its military after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
He will also be in charge of Britain’s aid budget, despite having criticised the government’s decision in 2020 to cut aid spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.
Other clues to Cameron’s approach to foreign affairs can be seen from his record in Number 10.
Back then he oversaw Britain’s intervention in a growing conflict in Libya in 2011 in an effort to protect civilians from then-leader Muammer Gaddafi.
Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee subsequently concluded that the intervention was based on poor intelligence and had “drifted” into an opportunist policy of regime change that resulted in “political and economic collapse” and humanitarian crises.
In 2013, parliament vetoed Cameron’s proposal to intervene against the Assad regime in Syria. Cameron had pushed then US president Barack Obama and other western leaders to get tough on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria after his apparent use of chemical weapons.
But he lost a House of Commons vote on the issue after failing to win the support of Labour leader Ed Miliband and a chunk of his own MPs.
A senior diplomat from an allied nation told the FT that Cameron was a “bold” appointment. “Cameron is an established world leader and will have credibility on the world stage immediately.”
“That means good access and he’ll be taken seriously,” the diplomat said. But they noted that Cameron had inherited foreign policy stances on China and Europe markedly different to those he pursued in office.
Cameron has told friends that he is daunted but excited to take on the role, according to one of his allies.
The person said that accepting the position would help Cameron “rehabilitate” his political reputation and put him “back in the game” for senior roles at multinational organisations in future.