Richard Whitman analyses David Cameron’s surprise appointment as Foreign Secretary, exploring the potential implications for UK foreign policy.
Rishi Sunak’s surprise appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary comes at a moment of relative stability in the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy. While there are significant international challenges confronting the UK – not least the crisis in the Middle East and the ongoing war in Ukraine – there has been a significant restoration of the credibility of British foreign policy over the last twelve months especially with the focus on enhancing relationships with the EU and its member states. Mr Cameron’s return to government is a very public reminder of the turbulence that has impacted UK diplomacy in recent years.
Cameron returns to office in a very different global context to the one he left. Since his departure as Prime Minister, the UK has weathered the Trump presidency and responded to Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine and the upending of the European security order. Meanwhile, the UK’s relationship with China has moved from a ‘golden era’ to perceiving it as a potential threat the to the regional and international order. And, of course, the UK has now left the European Union thanks to Cameron’s own decision to call a referendum on membership.
Questions were immediately raised about accountability and scrutiny of his role, given that he will sit in Parliament as a member of the House of Lords and will not be questioned in the Commons chamber. It is not entirely novel to have a Foreign Secretary based in the Lords (the most recent example being Margaret Thatcher’s first Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington who resigned over the Falklands War and subsequently became the Secretary General of NATO). Yet with a full-blown war taking place in Europe, a major conflict in the Middle East and the most unstable international environment in decades, the role of the House of Commons in holding the government to account on foreign policy choices is arguably especially important at present.
There will, of course, be a Foreign Office minister speaking from the government front bench in the Commons and with ministers of state such as Andrew Mitchell (previously Secretary of State for International Development), there are experienced figures able to represent the government’s foreign policy position as creditably as the Foreign Secretary. But it will provide the opposition parties in Parliament with a ready-made criticism that they cannot fully hold the government to account for its foreign policy.
Setting aside the domestic political and party management considerations that may have underpinned the appointment, the government has imported significant foreign and security policy expertise with Cameron’s appointment. Cameron has experience of UK diplomacy at the highest level including its key fora such as the G7, NATO, the United Nations. He has also personally initiated overseas military interventions, most notably in Libya. But his experience in international affairs is by no means uncontroversial, and was marked by a number of foreign policy failures including the Libya invention and failure on a key Commons vote on intervention in Syria.
While there is precedent for a Foreign Secretary to be based in the Lords, no Prime Minister since the second world war has taken on another of the great offices of state following the conclusion of their premiership. The dynamic between a fairly new Prime Minister who has been slowly finding his feet on foreign policy, and a new Foreign Secretary with a considerable breadth and depth of experience, will be fascinating to observe.
A good template for the relationship may be that between William Hague, Cameron’s Foreign Secretary, who was one of the UK’s most accomplished chief diplomats of recent decades (and a former Conservative Party leader and leader of the opposition) and who was an effective counterpart to Cameron’s role in UK foreign policy as PM. Indeed, it has been reported that Hague was offered and declined the role suggesting Cameron as an alternative.
Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary comes at a moment when the UK has set out with greater clarity the contours of its post-Brexit foreign policy. The Integrated Review (and its refresh earlier this year) provided a clearer roadmap for the UK’s post-Brexit international role. Further, under Sunak the government had already dropped its references to ‘Global Britain’ so closely associated with Cameron’s successors as Prime Minister and which often acted as a slogan in search of substantive content.
James Cleverly’s term as Foreign Secretary has also done much to expunge the poor performance of his recent predecessors. The Cleverly approach was to indulge less in hubristic rhetoric and concentrate more on the essentials of the role. Through a great deal of hard work in re-establishing good working relationships with his counterparts, Cleverly conveyed a high degree of competence and coherence at the top of UK diplomacy. Cameron needs to continue in the same vein.
One of Sunak and Cleverly’s particular achievements has been the détente they have achieved in the EU-UK relationship. This was facilitated by Russia’s war on Ukraine but consolidated by the agreement on the Windsor Framework. There is a certain irony to Cameron now being charged with further rebuilding the EU-UK relationship. And Cameron’s previous experience in office, when the UK was an EU member state, will be of less utility now that the UK is in a third country relationship.
Cameron’s appointment will inevitably raise questions in European (and other) capitals as to what his return to government is intended to signal and what it means for the direction of UK foreign policy. The answer may be as mundane as continuing the process of normalisation of Britain’s diplomacy that has been apparent since Sunak became Prime Minister.
However, Cameron may be looking to use the position to rehabilitate his political image through being an energetic and visible face of UK diplomacy. Much more beneficial to the UK would be to continue the rehabilitation of its post-Brexit foreign policy by focusing on attracting attention for its adroit diplomacy rather than providing a platform for the restoration of an individual’s reputation.
By Professor Richard G. Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.