Competence over political calculus?


I write as the cabinet reshuffle is still on-going.  Already, however – with all due respect to what feels like the 300th housing minister in the past 18 months – it seems unlikely that any appointment will top the return of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary.

There are any number of ways of looking at his appointment and I am sure the Government, the Opposition and Suella Braverman (who now belongs in a category all of her own) will have plenty to say. Will Cameron be fatally compromised by his almost unnoticed (at the time) criticism of a previous Conservative government for cutting the aid budget of which he is now to take charge?  

Will he be ‘re-dogged’ by the Greensill scandal?  

Will he over-shadow the current Prime Minister or, instead, trump the other former PMs who carp from the sidelines?

It is a questionable political decision from a Prime Minister not known for his political boldness, but perhaps this time we should set aside the political lens and simply ask if the candidate is fit for the job.

I am not going out on particularly distance limb in expressing the view that this Government has twelve months to run and then it is gone. There is no coming back from this. So, the test of Cameron’s appointment is not the political calculus but competence.  

In this regard, his CV looks pretty respectable. The argument is that, with war raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, it serves not just Britain, but the globe, well to have another grown up in the room. Cameron is definitely that.

As a former Prime Minister, Cameron has the gravitas to stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s leading statesmen. There is even an outside chance that President Biden – who was vice-president last time Cameron was in Downing Street – might remember his name.  

But recognition is not respect. Whether or not one supports the outcome of the Brexit referendum, it was a monumental political miscalculation which cost Cameron his job and badly damaged Britain’s reputation in the eyes of many of its most important allies.  

A ‘big beast’ on the domestic stage, his return may not be viewed so positively by those in other countries who have spent the last half dozen years dealing with the consequences of his last big decision.

So, Cameron’s standing and competence may be in question. Nevertheless, the appointment is reassuring for at least two reasons.  

First, it shows that Sunak is no longer in the mood to ‘balance the ticket’. As Simon Clarke has pointed out, his right wing is bare. Whether or not it will help with the management of his party, it will certainly enable Sunak to give his government direction – and Cameron is capable of following that direction and frankly has no incentive to do otherwise.

Second, Sunak is no longer thinking about winning the next election. This appointment is about getting through the next twelve months, about damage limitation, not stardust. Contrast with Theresa May’s drafting of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary.

The latter’s ambition all but destroyed her government. The former can have no ambition. Cameron is there solely to reinforce his leader, at a time when a little reinforcement looks much needed.   

And while Cameron may not be quite the heavyweight statesman that today’s spin might have us believe, he is surely at least in it for the right reasons.

And that is no small step.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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