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Lord David Cameron was singled out for a special welcome when he attended his first cabinet meeting in more than seven years on Tuesday morning.
Having assembled his reshuffled front-bench team, Rishi Sunak, prime minister, asked his new foreign secretary to update colleagues on the imminent state visit of the president of South Korea, a signal that Cameron had got straight down to work.
Although Cameron, the former prime minister and Conservative party leader, found himself on the other side of the long, tapered table topped with green baize, he was flanked by figures familiar from his last stint in office.
They included chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who served as Cameron’s culture secretary, housing secretary Michael Gove, who was his education secretary, and defence secretary Grant Shapps, his party chair.
In the intervening years, some of Cameron’s former backroom aides have entered frontline politics. He sat next to his former deputy chief of staff Oliver Dowden, now deputy prime minister. Laura Trott, his ex-special adviser, was on Monday promoted to Treasury chief secretary.
Downing Street insiders said the initial idea to place Cameron in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office originated with Sunak, even though the prime minister has recently attempted to distance himself from his predecessors and vowed to end the “30 years of consensus”.
Lord William Hague, former Tory leader, said claims he had been approached first about taking the job, or acted as an intermediary between Sunak and Cameron, were wide of the mark.
Hague on Tuesday admitted he “knew about it a few days before and spoke to David Cameron to brief him about my views on foreign affairs and the Foreign Office”.
However, he told Times Radio that it “wasn’t my idea”, adding: “Sometimes in politics, things are simpler than they look. Sometimes somebody just asked somebody else around for a chat and said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ And they said, ‘Well, OK, fine’. It doesn’t need any intermediary . . . They just sort it out themselves.”
A longtime political mentor to Sunak, who succeeded him as MP for Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015, Hague said the prime minister “knows not even to ask” whether he would consider a return to government.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission approved Cameron’s peerage before the reshuffle, according to people familiar with the matter.
As he returned to Downing Street for the second time in two days to a crush of photographers in the press pen, Cameron was joined by Andrew Mitchell, another longtime ally.
The pair’s entry through the lacquered black door of Number 10 hinted at the political double act to come. Since Cameron will sit in the House of Lords, Mitchell will be the most senior foreign minister in the House of Commons, fielded at the despatch box to answer MPs’ questions.
Mitchell’s debut in this role came just hours after the cabinet met, when he delivered a statement to the Commons on the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Despite Cameron’s absence, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy highlighted the former prime minister’s status as the seventh top diplomat appointed in the seven years since he unleashed “chaos after he was forced to resign in failure over a matter of foreign policy” following the Brexit referendum.
Lammy also argued that Cameron’s appointment undercut Sunak’s recent claim to be the candidate for change. Instead, the prime minister had “just resurrected yesterday’s failure with an honour”, he said.
But Sunak’s decision won applause from the chief executive of Britain’s biggest asset manager.
Sir Nigel Wilson of Legal & General, who served in Cameron’s business advisory group when he was prime minister, praised his “vast knowledge” and urged ministers to get “much closer” to China in order to boost foreign direct investment — a move that would risk an angry backlash from Tory Sino-sceptics.
“I think it’s good for the country that people actually come back and want to contribute,” Wilson told the Financial Times’ Future of Asset Management Europe summit in London on Tuesday, adding that Cameron was one of the few UK politicians with an international network.
Asked about Cameron’s stance on China, and his stint as an adviser to Greensill Capital, which put him at the centre of the biggest lobbying scandal in Britain in recent years, Wilson said: “Everyone has bumps along the way. I’m sure he’s learned a lot of lessons from those bumps.”