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Good morning. David Cameron is back, and so is his way of doing politics. Rishi Sunak brought the former prime minister back into government yesterday and also promoted a host of Cameroons. (In a move that is quite literally an exact copy of the Cameron playbook, he also handed Esther McVey a nebulous role “attending cabinet” as a sop to the right of the party, just as Cameron did back in 2014.)
In one way, the move is already a success: it has allowed Sunak to remove Suella Braverman without a day of headlines about Conservative division. It provided the prime minister with a way to winkle James Cleverly out of the Foreign Office and into the Home Office, without it looking like a snub to him. Cleverly is one of the few Tory ministers who is both known as a competent administrator and someone Sunak can trust not to use his brief to make difficulty for him.
But will the return of Cameron — and his methods — turn things around for the Conservatives and produce a surprise victory as in 2014 and 1992? Some thoughts on that below.
Party like it’s 2008!
Anything Gordon Brown can do, Rishi Sunak can do better? In the autumn of 2008, Brown brought Peter Mandelson, a co-architect of Labour’s Nineties renaissance, back into the cabinet to revitalise his flagging government.
The news came as a complete surprise to everyone in Westminster — including Mandelson, then the UK’s EU commissioner, who as George Parker revealed in his mini-profile of Mandelson a few months later, had turned up at Downing Street with a return ticket to Brussels. (Another fun link from the archive: here’s Jim Pickard’s report at the time.)
Now in the autumn of 2023, Sunak has brought David Cameron, not just a co-architect but the principal figure in the Tory party’s Noughties renaissance, back into the cabinet to revitalise his flagging government. The news came as a complete surprise to almost everybody at Westminster, but not to Cameron: as George Parker and Jim Pickard reveal, he was sounded out for the post last Wednesday.
Mandelson helped to turn what many had expected to be a thumping Conservative victory into a hung parliament. Can Cameron do the same?
In terms of a signal to voters that the Tory party has changed, this is a big one. You don’t have to knock on many doors in the Home Counties or spend too long drinking in the pubs around the City of London (though if you want to do the latter, Jim has you covered for that as well) to hear people saying that what the Conservatives really need is to go back to the days of Cameron.
These were traditionally reliable voters once: not just the electoral shock troops of British conservatism, but people whom Tory policy aimed to make more of. These voters are now provoking nightmares among Conservative MPs in formerly safe seats and whose defection helped elect Alistair Strathern in Mid Bedfordshire last month.
Bringing back Cameron is the biggest possible signal you could make to this group of voters that the Conservative party is trying to reach out to them again. Lower down the ranks there are plenty of promotions for MPs from the party’s left, too. Laura Trott and Vicky Atkins are in the cabinet for the first time, while Bim Afolami, Guy Opperman, Laura Farris and others are either back in or made ministers for the first time.
Of course, Cameron is not as popular as he was at the peak of his powers, as this IpsosMori poll from July makes clear. But he is more popular than both his party (he always was) and Sunak.
And the biggest task facing the prime minister isn’t to win back enough voters to keep the Conservative party in office after the next election. It is to get a party that is averaging a quarter of the vote in the polls back up to a level where the next election is not a cataclysmic defeat. As a first step, giving a little bit of love to what was once the party’s reliable core is not a bad move.
In addition, it means that instead of wall-to-wall headlines from the broadcasters — the bits of media that really matter in terms of shaping how voters think about the government — about Conservative divisions and Suella Braverman, the coverage of the reshuffle is largely about the return of Cameron.
So that’s what Sunak will hope he accomplishes by bringing the former prime minister back. But there are many risks. Cameron comes with plenty of baggage. He led a pro-China government and the Conservative party is increasingly Sinosceptic. As my old political correspondent, Eleni Courea, revealed last month over at Politico, Cameron has been lobbying on behalf of China-backed infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific as recently as September. Though there will be many voters welcoming his return, other once-faithful Tory voters will be enraged by the comeback of a man they blame for Brexit.
And Cameron’s intense lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital is a political problem the government could do without, and one that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will surely find new ways of bringing up.
There is an important difference between Brown in 2008 and Sunak today. Although Brown and Mandelson engaged in bitter personal feuds with each other, they were both architects of New Labour and major figures on the Labour party’s right. Cameron and Sunak are not from the same Tory tradition, nor are they figures of anything like comparable weight.
Brown’s great advantage in bringing back Mandelson was that it suppressed the largely personality-driven divisions between Brownites and Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour party. The big danger to Sunak in bringing back Cameron is that it will aggravate the largely policy-driven divisions between the party’s left and right.
And to further amplify those risks, Sunak himself has real and sincere objections to the Cameroon way of doing politics. Cameron is famously laid back, but I find it hard to imagine that these differences will not become a source of tension around the cabinet table. So there are costs as well as benefits to the signal that Sunak is sending.
But the biggest risk is highlighted in Robert Shrimsley’s delightfully catty intro to his column on the reshuffle: “This week Rishi Sunak is mainly defying the Tory right.” The difficult truth for Sunak is that what we have seen of his political instincts does not suggest we are looking at a politician who is going to follow through on these moves and deliver a strategy to match them.
Only a month ago Sunak was railing against a 30-year consensus. Now he has brought a man into cabinet who was prime minister for six of those 30 years, and made a host of appointments down the government payroll to bolster the impression it is now offering Cameron 2.0.
“Let Rishi be Rishi” has given way, remarkably quickly, to “let Rishi be David Cameron”. What strategy will Sunak reach for next? One reason why the Braverman dynamic was so harmful is that liberal voters hated what she said, while authoritarian voters hated that her words had no follow-through.
It may be that Sunak is setting himself up for a mirror image of the same problem, where the hopes raised among liberal Tory voters by Cameron’s return are dashed if the government’s words and actions over the next year proves indistinguishable from those of the last one. Meanwhile, Sunak faces authoritarian voters seeing the move as a sign that his administration really isn’t for them.
Now try this
I had an absolutely lovely long weekend — thanks to Jude and Georgina for running the show so brilliantly in my absence.
I’m not sure “absolutely lovely” is quite how I would describe How To Have Sex, but it really is a peerless film about friendships, relationships and consent. Do go and see it: provided you’re feeling robust that day. Here’s Jonathan Romney’s review.