“He’s a class act,” one grinning Tory MP effused when I asked for their two cents on David Cameron ahead of his first interrogation by MPs since being appointed Foreign Secretary. Rishi Sunak’s decision to appoint a predecessor to the role led to grumbles from those on the party’s right while delighting the party’s liberals. “[Barack] Obama got John Kerry in as secretary of state in a similar fashion,” one admiring MP wistfully remembered at the time.
Cameron’s return from the wilderness (also known as the Cotswolds) was made possible by a prompt ennoblement to the House of Lords. He was handed some ermine and told to deal with the unfolding war between Israel and Hamas to allow, some speculate, Sunak to devote more time to winning over voters at home.
The controversy at the time – as conflict erupted in the Middle East and continued to churn up eastern Europe – was how Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton would be held to account by the elected representatives of the British people. The salve that mollified some staunch believers in the supremacy of the Commons was that Cameron would still have to appear before MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
And so yesterday, after a December session was postponed so he could attend the funeral of the emir of Kuwait, Cameron strolled into the Margaret Thatcher Room across the road from the Palace of Westminster – besuited, smooth and sporting what looked suspiciously like a tan – to face committee members from the House of Commons.
Throughout his appearance Cameron could not help reminiscing about his time as prime minister. A seemingly irrelevant anecdote about Obama gushed from his mouth. In his first answer, Cameron cast his mind back to the world at the time he left university, when Russia was becoming a “friend” and China was joining the World Trade Organisation. “It looked like democracy and free-market economics was spreading across the world.” Not so now, hawk-eyed Cameron observed.
But is that what he really thinks? Only two months before his appointment, he was promoting a Sri Lankan port development – part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This made his claim that he understands the world has changed since heralding a “golden era” of relations with China when PM less convincing.
But whatever one makes of his merit as a diplomat, Cameron is the picture of a consummate politician. His ability to evade questions is second to none. He slides past questions with a disarming charm. “If we step back and look at the big picture”; “I’m a bit torn on this”; “I don’t recall every piece of paper put in front of me”; “I’ll answer a slightly different question if I may”; “I am not a lawyer.”
In the face of such an interrogatee, the committee did well to extract some answers – more than, I imagine, if Cameron was taking questions in the Commons. Select committees can offer greater scrutiny because they dispose of the despatch box posturing and grandiloquent etiquette required in the chamber. The chair can repeatedly interject until an answer emerges – a privilege Alicia Kearns used liberally.
Cameron resisted answering whether Israel was breaking international law but under the persistent questioning of Kearns, who reminded him how happily he has accused other countries of war crimes in the past, the Foreign Secretary said that Israel was “de facto” occupying Gaza and that he was “worried that Israel has taken action that might be in breach of international law”. He went on to call for another humanitarian pause and threatened to upgrade the travel ban on Israeli settlers in the West Bank to a full sanction. Cameron, remember, called Gaza a “prison camp” as prime minister in 2010, and condemned Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 as “disproportionate”.
There has been a marked shift in the government’s approach since he took office. On 16 December, he wrote a joint article with Annalena Baerbock, his German counterpart, calling for a sustainable ceasefire and for Israel to kill fewer civilians.
But his belief in Britain’s ability to act on these concerns seemed minimal. When Kearns pressed Cameron on whether the UK can restrain Israeli air strikes, he could only muster: “I hope they listen to us.” For all the urbane confidence, it was not a compelling endorsement of British power abroad.
[See also: Rishi Sunak is digging his own grave]