Anand Menon analyses the challenges facing new Foreign Secretary David Cameron when it comes to engaging with Europe.
I almost feel sorry for David Cameron. So miserable in his bespoke hut that he opted to re-enter frontline politics. And that under a PM who recently repudiated the ‘consensus’ of which Cameron himself was a key part. And with his party twenty points behind in the polls. All in order to shepherd (sorry) the nation’s foreign policy. Which might prove to be a more challenging task than he expects.
Much has been made of the politics of all this. If Rishi Sunak was after a way to distract attention from his sacking of Suella Braverman, he happened upon a rather successful wheeze.
Longer term I’m not so sure. David Cameron was, of course, the man who told the 2006 Tory party conference that ‘we have moved back to the…centre ground…of British politics. And that is where we will stay.’ And his unexpected elevation has spawned much rejoicing on the party’s liberal wing – Iain Dale declaring that ‘for moderate, centrist, fiscally conservative, socially liberal Conservatives like me, it’s a good day.’
Yet Cameron’s primary task will not be to discuss domestic policies in his new role. In fact, he will be spending an awful lot of time abroad. And it’s hard to see why the government would pivot away from its culture wars rhetoric simply because he is sitting at the Cabinet table – particularly now it is armed with its new commonsense Tsar. Rather more interesting in this regard is what new appointees such as Victoria Atkins (health) or Laura Trott (chief Secretary to the Treasury) achieve. It is, after all, what the government does rather than who the government is made up of that will ultimately shape popular perceptions.
But what of the role itself? As the Institute For Government never tires of telling us, ministerial churn is in and of itself counterproductive. Seven foreign secretaries in seven years is hardly indicative of stability.
James Cleverly, the last incumbent, moreover, seems to have been pretty effective. A ‘prolific traveler,’ in the words of one senior Foreign Office official, he has forged good personal relations with a number of his counterparts, including the EU’s Maroš Šefčovič. Certainly, Cameron is no stranger to the world of diplomacy, but he will have some catching up to do.
And this will be true in Europe as much as, if not more than, elsewhere. The UK has cooperated closely with the EU over Ukraine. And the new Foreign Secretary will be expected to maintain the tacit rapprochement begun under Mr Sunak. The Windsor Framework was followed by agreement on UK participation in the Horizon research programme, while Sunak has seemingly abandoned a number of Brexiter fantasies such as the immediate sunsetting of EU laws in the original Retained EU Law Bill.
The problem is that Mr Cameron was never much good at playing the European game. His legacy, even before the referendum of 2016, was increased suspicion on the part of his European partners. His decision to leave the European People’s Party meant the loss of valuable influence in a key informal decision-making arena, as well as among those such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel who would later be key to his attempted renegotiation.
Equally, his talk of a British Bill of Rights led the EU to hedge against UK exit from the Convention on Human Rights, insisting that any security agreement would be voided in such an eventuality.
Last but not least, Cameron’s ‘veto’ of the 2011 Fiscal Pact (described by Ivan Rogers as a ‘disastrous break between us and the Europeans’) led leaders, including, crucially, Angela Merkel, to conclude that he had not negotiated in good faith. His attempt to block what, for his partners, was a response to an existential threat soured his relationships with them. And the episode set the tone for a number of others in which Cameron was to find himself isolated over major decisions such as the selection of the Commission President.
Yet he will need to work closely with the Europeans. Not least because, in his own words (from 2016), ‘the dangerous international situation facing Britain today, means that the closest possible cooperation with our European neighbours isn’t an optional extra – it is essential. We need to stand united. Now is a time for strength in numbers.’
But cooperation is far harder now than it was when we were members of the club. The new Foreign Secretary will have to work on his ability to make friends and influence people.
And he will have to do so against the backdrop of some fairly ugly internal Conservative Party politics. Jacob Rees Mogg was among the first on the right out of the traps, suggesting that Cameron’s return might push some Conservative voters into the arms of Reform UK. Truss cheerleader Simon Clarke chipped in with his own cryptic footballing analogy. Maintaining relations with the EU while fending off such attacks was hardly Cameron’s strength when last in office.
One of his more eye-catching claims after leaving Downing Street was that the ‘lack of referendum was poisoning British politics, and I put that right’. Confronting a suspicious European Union and openly hostile forces within his own party, he may be about to realize just how wrong he was. And to start missing that hut.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director, UK in a Changing Europe.