In his Conservative Party conference speech last month, Rishi Sunak vowed to end a “30-year political status quo”. He assailed the “vested interests” that had obstructed change and offered himself as an alternative.
Mr Sunak’s dubious gambit has unravelled entirely. On 13 November, he appointed David Cameron – prime minister for six of the accursed 30 years – as foreign secretary.
The move is not without logic. As a former prime minister, Mr Cameron has more international experience and diplomatic contacts than most. He is also an adept and fluent media performer and may appeal to southern voters in the “Blue Wall”, where the Liberal Democrats threaten the Tories.
But Mr Cameron’s return confirms the Conservatives’ political exhaustion and ideological incoherence. It has also revealed the enduring delusions of the UK’s liberal centre. Contrary to the plaudits heaped on Mr Cameron – “for six years government was run as it should be”, claimed his former foreign secretary William Hague – there is no reason to feel nostalgic for his premiership.
Before entering Downing Street in 2010, Mr Cameron remarked that he would like to become prime minister “because I think I’d be good at it”. But such self-confidence was never matched by a cogent agenda. His politics were a strange fusion of banal Thatcherism, shire Toryism and modish liberalism.
His years in office were defined by an austerity programme that failed to achieve a budget surplus but did enfeeble public services. A chaotic top-down reorganisation was imposed on the National Health Service and institutions such as the Royal Mail were thoughtlessly privatised. The “Big Society” – Mr Cameron’s flagship project – struggled to evolve beyond a slogan.
[See also: Can David Cameron make amends in Scotland?]
His foreign record was scarcely better. Mr Cameron headed the disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011, which helped turn the North African country into a failed state. He pursued a naive “golden era” relationship with China, and transferred ownership of critical UK infrastructure, such as telecommunications and nuclear power stations, to the authoritarian dictatorship. Finally, he called a self-interested referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and, following a botched renegotiation of the UK’s terms with Europe, lost it.
Though Mr Cameron is hailed by his admirers as a “winner”, his electoral record is less impressive than they suggest. In 2010, after 13 years of Labour government, the Tories only secured 36.1 per cent of the vote and a hung parliament. Five years later they bettered this with the aid of Ed Miliband’s unpopular Labour and Nick Clegg’s marooned Lib Dems (winning a 12-seat majority). But there is no significant “Cameroon” bloc among the British electorate. UK voters, who favour public ownership of the privatised utilities, lie well to the left of Mr Cameron on economic policy and to the right of him on social policy.
His return to government undermines Mr Sunak’s integrity as well as his political coherence. As an adviser to Greensill Capital, the financial services company that collapsed in 2021, Mr Cameron in 2020 shamelessly harried the government for business. Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, described the affair as the “biggest lobbying scandal in a generation”. Two years later, in spite of Mr Sunak’s promise to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, Mr Cameron has returned as an unelected peer.
But beyond his personal record, Mr Cameron’s resurrection signifies a deeper malaise in UK politics. The 2016 Brexit vote was not just a rejection of EU membership – it was a symbol of profound national dissatisfaction: with an economic system that failed to guarantee adequate living standards, and with a political system that failed to guarantee democratic accountability.
For a period, figures from both main parties vowed to do politics differently and to reduce inequalities of wealth and power. The same was said during the Covid-19 pandemic when leaders vowed to “build back better”.
Yet, as the memory of these upheavals fades, the temptation is always to return to old, familiar ways. Mr Cameron’s comeback was welcomed as a political comfort blanket by those who cannot bear too much reality. But as long as the roots of public discontent are ignored, the only certainty is of further shocks.
[See also: The Tory right’s divided tribes]
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures