It is just what he wanted. And it is just what he needs. If David Cameron stands any chance of serious political redemption, then this is it, a return to front-line politics in a job which will play to his strengths of persuasion, charm and compromise.
At least it rescues him from a lifetime of Chinese consultancy. Many will never forgive him for the almost offhand way he steered Britain into an unnecessary Brexit cul-de-sac, and the ramifications of his mistake continue to cast a pall over the country. And yet there appears to be a second act for our beleaguered former prime minister, and on a broader scale an opportunity for him to try to recast the last 13 years of Tory rule.
I once spent a year with Cameron, on and off, when he was leader of the Opposition, back in 2007, working on a book that allowed him to espouse his ideas in a series of conversations. I accompanied him on prison visits, constituency visits, by-election rallies, meetings with various security heads, and spent so much time in Portcullis House I thought I might have to start paying council tax.
In wide-ranging and frank discussions, the Conservative leader talked about everything from the war in Afghanistan to his mission to fix what he believed was Britain’s broken society. I found out what Cameron really thought about our economy, the environment and crime, along with the NHS, schools and immigration. He also revealed more than ever before about his background, education and career, talking in depth about his family life, and in particular the tragic death of his beloved son Ivan.
Rishi Sunak is trying to move his party towards the centre rather than the Right
I found him to be decent, compassionate, committed and wily, and while he was criticised for saying that the principal reason he wanted to be prime minister was because he thought he “would do a good job”, I knew what he meant. My wife wasn’t sure about him, and she tends to be a good judge of character, but I thought he ended up being a pretty good prime minister. Until he wasn’t, of course. And then he really wasn’t.
It’s an understatement to say that the Cameron appointment is something of a surprise. Most people imagined he was knee-deep in consultancies, sucking on the cash piñata that’s always flipped out for ex-PMs. He liked to say that he hadn’t been busier and had previously declined an opportunity to chair COP26 in Glasgow, suggesting it should be handled by a Cabinet minister and that he had too many commitments he wished to focus on such as his work as president of Alzheimer’s Research UK. Really?
What his appointment as Foreign Secretary does suggest is that Rishi Sunak is trying to move his party towards the centre, rather than the Right, which will confound many political analysts, but will no doubt improve his standing with the electorate. Of course, maybe Sunak just couldn’t find anyone else to do it (Labour accused Sunak of using the ex-PM as a “life raft”). To many, this reshuffle looks desperate and is a sign that Sunak has run out of talent. You may have thought there might have been someone who Sunak could have corralled into doing the job. But apparently not.
Cameron certainly has his critics; Brexit hardliners will be outraged by the shock political comeback of an arch-Remainer, and others think he is a busted flush. There is also his record. As the Evening Standard’s Jack Kessler wrote in yesterday’s newsletter: “That Cameron’s fairly bland views on Europe instantly make him a suspect figure speaks to how different the party is today from the one he stopped leading seven-and-a-half years ago. Cameron’s position diverges from the present Tory orthodoxy not only on the EU but China, international aid, HS2 and immigration. I mean, only a month ago he accused Sunak of acting against the long-term interests of the country.”
Having spent the seven years since he left Downing Street in a kind of political purdah, it will be interesting to see just how Cameron adjusts to a role that will not just require top-down strategising, but also results. After all, being Foreign Secretary is a results-driven job. And David Cameron’s ledger needs all the help it can get.
Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s Editor-in-Chief, and the author of Cameron on Cameron