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22 February 2024

The Cameron effect

One hundred days into the job, David Cameron has reinvigorated British foreign policy.

By Peter Ricketts

It turns out that a six-year stint as prime minister is a good apprenticeship for the job of foreign secretary. In his first three months in the role, David Cameron has brought a new pace and purpose to British foreign policy. How has he had this galvanising effect?

For a start, Cameron has sustained a hectic tempo of travel. In four trips to the Middle East, he has met all the key players in the Israel/Gaza drama several times. No other Western leader except the US secretary of state Antony Blinken has put so much hard work into crisis diplomacy. Cameron has also packed in visits to Kyiv, Washington and all the main European capitals, as well as becoming a fixture on the international conference circuit. On 20 February he embarked on a tour of the Americas, from the Falklands to New York via Brazil for a G20 meeting.

It helps that Cameron is the first foreign secretary in the House of Lords since Peter Carrington in 1982. He therefore has no constituency to tend or unpredictable Commons votes grounding him in London. In the Foreign Office, we used to watch in envy on a Friday as the US or French foreign minister set off on another round of diplomacy while our ministers returned to their second job as constituency MPs. Cameron is clearly relishing his freedom to be Foreign Secretary seven days a week.

Showing up is important. But real influence means bringing ideas to the table as well. On Ukraine, Cameron inherited a strong UK position and has maintained it. On Gaza, he moved briskly to sharpen up the timid approach of his predecessor James Cleverly, using a joint article with the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock in December 2023 to demand a sustainable ceasefire and to call out Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. He has worked to set up new routes for getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, particularly from Jordan.

His main policy innovation so far has been to shift the UK position on recognising a Palestinian state. For decades, ministers stuck to the formula that the government would do so “at a time when it best serves the objective of peace”. Cameron announced in an interview on 2 February a small but significant change: UK recognition could come as part of the process of negotiating a peace settlement rather than at the end. In other words, it would not be dependent on Israel accepting a deal. This was a signal to the Palestinians and their Arab backers that the UK was willing to show flexibility in pursuing a two-state solution. It may also have been designed to help create the conditions for a new Palestinian leadership to emerge. It went beyond the US position, but Blinken probably finds it useful to have the UK opening up this space.

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The Cameron effect is also the result of the authority and self-confidence he brings to the role. His status as a former prime minister with global name recognition helps. Most of the autocrats he dealt with while in No 10 are still there, even though the democratic leaders have changed. He is willing to speak out more boldly than his immediate predecessors (or Rishi Sunak). His blunt message to US House Republicans on the need to vote through the funding package for Ukraine was a case in point. The parallel he drew with the appeasement of the 1930s was risky and may prove counter-productive, but it was a powerful intervention at a key moment.

In Brussels and in EU capitals, there was surprise and wariness at the return of the man who was responsible for the Brexit referendum. But Cameron was fortunate to arrive at a time when there was much closer cooperation between the EU and UK on foreign and security policy because of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Soon after stepping into the role, he met with the EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, although there are unlikely to be difficult institutional negotiations this year, given the pause in business with the European Parliament and UK elections.

Part of the baggage Cameron brought to his new job was his “golden era” policy, as prime minister, of economic cooperation with China. Sunak was quick to dampen any speculation that his return could herald a change of the UK’s current approach, telling the Global Investment Summit last November that China had changed, and British policy had evolved. There is no sign that Cameron has any problems with the current policy. He used a low-profile meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the Munich Security Conference on 16 February to set out the government line. Do not expect an early visit to Beijing.

The argument about a lack of democratic accountability is overdone. Cameron faces 40 minutes of questions in the Lords each month and (dare I say it) more expert scrutiny there than he would get in the Commons. He has attended long evidence sessions with several select committees. And in Andrew Mitchell he has a highly experienced Commons deputy who is very much on the same wavelength – as I know from seeing them together when I was in the National Security Council from 2010.

David Cameron chalked up 100 days in the job on 21 February. The impact that any foreign minister from a middle-sized power can have on the world’s intractable problems is limited. But with his energy, competence and willingness to speak out, he has restored some influence for Britain in the world. He must use it to good effect in the time that remains to him.

[See also: Nigel Farage is shaping Britain’s political future]

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