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Just six weeks ago, Rishi Sunak proclaimed himself to be a “change” prime minister who would break with 30 years of failed consensus. Now he is bringing back as foreign secretary a man who was Conservative premier for six of the past 13 years. The return of David Cameron — despite how his premiership ended and the controversies he has attracted since — at least injects some heft into a cabinet of lightweights. The ejection of Suella Braverman, who as home secretary was both inflammatory and inept, is similarly positive. Even if this reshuffle raises the quality of the team, however, it represents yet another switch in direction for a government that is thrashing around in search of a strategy.

Sunak, in truth, waited too long to sack Braverman. With her talk of “hurricanes” of migrants, of “failed” multiculturalism, of “hate” marches and of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”, she habitually engaged in ugly, dog-whistle politics. Her publication of an opinion article last week accusing police of favouritism towards left-wing protesters, not cleared by Downing Street, amounted to open defiance. She clashed with her own department and achieved little in “stopping the boats” from crossing the Channel or improving the handling of asylum-seekers.

Moving James Cleverly from foreign secretary to replace Braverman at the Home Office seems to have been motivated largely by a need to open the right slot for Cameron. But if the Supreme Court rules this week against the plan Braverman championed to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, his appointment could at least lessen frictions inside government. Braverman may call for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights — disastrous for the country’s global reputation — which Cleverly is said to be against.

The strange re-embrace of Cameron seems to represent a return to presenting the Sunak government as a competent, stabilising force — after September’s unhappy dalliance with “radicalism” — and a tacking back towards the political centre. It is unlikely to convince.

Cameron and Sunak are not aligned on many policies. The former premier made the Conservatives electable again in 2010, embracing green issues and same-sex marriage and steering them away from being the “nasty party”. Today’s prime minister has sometimes seemed closer in his social conservatism to Braverman. He has recently watered down net zero targets, and scrapped a high-speed rail link to Manchester, moves that Cameron has criticised.

While Cameron was said to have worn the mantle of high office with ease, his gamble on a Brexit referendum he believed he could win backfired on a historic scale. He can also claim few successes on the foreign policy front. The 2011 intervention he backed in Libya left the country close to being a failed state. He was dovish towards China — which his party now sees as a growing threat. After leaving office, Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill Capital led to his being accused of a serious lack of judgment.

His return to government seems destined to set up a bruising clash with the Tory right, for whom the sacked Braverman may become a figurehead. A flaring of internecine struggles will make it all the harder for Sunak to woo back centrist voters and convince them he has any credible programme for another term in office. Many will in any case see the latest reorganisation of cabinet chairs as the last gasp of an administration that is out of ideas.

The UK system grants governments some flexibility over the timing of elections. Downing Street’s instinct will be to hold on as long as possible in hope of an unlikely turnaround in fortunes. Many beyond the parliamentary Tory party will rightly feel that the sooner the British people are given a chance to express their views at the ballot box, the better.

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