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Being Foreign Secretary is harder than it looks for David Cameron

Beneath his slick presentation, Cameron’s achievements at the Foreign Office have been limited.

By Freddie Hayward

David Cameron beguiled some last week with a mildly competent social media post. His piece to camera at the Nato summit, in which he recited his foreign policy plans, received gushing endorsements. But behind the combed locks and plummy tones, his forthright approach to diplomacy has yielded mixed results.

After resigning as prime minister, Cameron was known for smoking at music festivals, owning a shepherd’s hut and lobbying for the financial services company Greensill before he was plucked from ignominy by Rishi Sunak last November to be Foreign Secretary. Since then he has taken ownership over British foreign policy while Sunak sought to revive his ailing time in office. Cameron was supposed to deal with the UK’s response to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine to allow Sunak the time to focus on the election. The hastily appointed lord – who had a pockmarked legacy to fix – approached the task with vigour.

He made the government’s position on Israel more sceptical. He raised the possibility of recognising Palestinian sovereignty. He announced that Britain’s support for Israel was “not unconditional” and described Israel as an “occupying power”. But he also admitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that his power to influence the Israeli government – to even be heard by them – was slight.

His charm seems to have had limited results with the Americans, too. He flew across the Atlantic this week to urge Congress to pass a $60bn support package for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. He met with Donald Trump, whose policies he once described as “divisive, stupid and wrong”. But he was not welcomed on the Hill. He was snubbed by House speaker and Trump ally Mike Johnson. His meeting with the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was reduced to a phone call.

This cold reception can be partly explained by an article he wrote in February that compared US legislators to those who appeased Hitler, which led to the memorable riposte from Trump-ally congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green that he could “kiss my ass”.

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To be fair to Cameron, as John Jenkins, the former ambassador to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, told me this morning: “Even Lord Palmerston would struggle these days because British politics is such a shitshow.”

Jenkins added: “The Americans go with power – they always have and power has been draining from the Tory party and from the government for a long time.” Indeed, the contrast with Labour is stark. The opposition is having no trouble getting a reception with senior Republicans. David Lammy is investing serious time into getting to know congressmen, senators and their teams.

I hear the shadow foreign secretary is returning to DC yet again in May. He has already built a relationship with the Trump cabinet hopeful JD Vance, Robert O’Brien, Trump’s former national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser and father of the China strategy, as well as the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

The Democratic Party is Labour’s traditional sister party. But because the latter is on the cusp of victory, Republicans are also taking notice. Keir Starmer’s commitment yesterday to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP will only make that relationship easier.

Meanwhile, Cameron is labouring against his party’s reputation. The Conservatives are not Trumpian enough for the modern-day Republican Party to be their sister party. And they are too Trumpian for the Democrats. They are falling through the cracks. This week showed the constraints that domestic politics places on a foreign secretary who saw his return to cabinet as a chance to resuscitate his legacy.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Netanyahu has launched a war Israel can never win]

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