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21 February 2024

The reinvention of David Cameron

In an era of geopolitical turmoil, Labour could learn from the former prime minister’s bracing approach to foreign policy.

By New Statesman

David Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary last November was greeted with much derision. As prime minister he had been responsible for austerity that degraded the public realm at home, the ill-fated military intervention in Libya, the naive pursuit of a “golden age” with China, and the Brexit vote – sometimes described as the biggest blunder since Lord North lost the American colonies. More recently, as an adviser to Greensill Capital, the financial services company that collapsed in 2021, Mr Cameron had become embroiled in a major lobbying scandal. Who was this unelected peer to represent the UK abroad?

Yet three months on, the Foreign Secretary has brought verve and urgency to Rishi Sunak’s otherwise discredited and exhausted government.

The Middle East crisis is where the continent-traversing Mr Cameron has had the greatest impact. Earlier this month he suggested that the UK could unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state in the aftermath of any ceasefire in Gaza. With this intervention, the Foreign Secretary outflanked both Downing Street and the Labour Party and shifted the terms of debate. A week later, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, echoed his stance by suggesting that unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state was “not beyond contemplation”.

Mr Cameron has also imposed sanctions on “extremist settlers” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who have violently attacked Palestinians. “This behaviour is illegal and unacceptable,” he said. “Too often, we see commitments made [by Israel] and undertakings given, but not followed through.”

To many, Mr Cameron’s robust stance came as a surprise, but it should not have done. Back in 2010, shortly after becoming prime minister, he declared that “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp”. In 2006, as opposition leader, he condemned Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as “disproportionate”, in contrast to Tony Blair. On the Middle East, Mr Cameron’s approach owes more to old-style Tory Arabism than it does to pro-Israeli neoconservatism.

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The Foreign Secretary’s capacity to make the political weather has also been demonstrated through the war in Ukraine. In an article for the US title the Hill, he implored Congress to pass a new funding bill for Volodymyr Zelensky’s government: “I do not want us to show the weakness displayed against Hitler in the 1930s. He came back for more, costing us far more lives to stop his aggression.”

His words had impact: “David Cameron needs to worry about his own country and frankly he can kiss my ass,” declared Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman. Rather than merely treating his job as a political sinecure, Mr Cameron has shown the influence a British foreign secretary can still wield.

As a former prime minister and peer, Mr Cameron enjoys rare benefits: he has an abundance of international contacts and is insulated from domestic political pressures. Questions rightly persist over parliamentary accountability – as the New Statesman first revealed, MPs have proposed questioning Mr Cameron from the “bar” of the House of Commons – but the UK’s soft power has been enhanced. 

There are lessons for Labour from Mr Cameron’s early months in office. Rather than being a mere spectator of global affairs, the United Kingdom can still be a significant participant. Though Brexit has weakened its international influence in some respects, it has also freed it to pursue its own path – as with the Covid-19 vaccine programme and early military support for Ukraine.

Mr Lammy and Mr Starmer, who were greeted as leaders-in-waiting at the recent Munich Security Conference, are developing Labour’s world-view: “progressive realism”, as Mr Lammy has called it. This, we are told, is a fusion of the idealism of Robin Cook and the hard-headed realism of Ernest Bevin. But Labour must go its own way and develop its own foreign policy. It must re-engage with the European Union and build bridges with our allies and partners in Europe. But Labour should also be bold, especially as Donald Trump might be the next US president. And as they prepare to govern in this era of geopolitical turmoil, the Labour leadership could even learn something from the unlikely second coming of David Cameron.  

[See also: Europe’s new age of insecurity]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation