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The stunning return of former leader David Cameron to international politics after seven years in the wilderness following his disastrous Brexit loss says one of two things about the current state of Britain’s Conservative government.
Either, after a lengthy stint of drift and chaos, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided to put the grown-ups back in charge or – as many suspect – he is so bereft of ideas and talent in his ranks that he reached into an ever dwindling bag of tricks in an act of desperation.
Former British prime minister David Cameron has been appointed foreign secretary.Credit: PA
Cameron’s appointment to the House of Lords and his return to cabinet, this time as foreign secretary, comes at a time of great domestic despair in the UK and a time of global peril. Many are kept awake at night by a war in Eastern Europe with no end in sight, by the potential spread of Israel’s war on Hamas in the Middle East and the ever-present spectre of an assertive China in the Indo-Pacific.
The briefings from those close to Sunak are that Cameron is a respected figure on the world stage who will help ensure Britain plays a leading role in shaping global affairs while Sunak can focus on the domestic economy.
The constant churn rate of the four top positions in government has broadly tripled in the wake of the Brexit referendum, compared with the period between 1979 and June 2016.
Excluding incumbents at the time of the vote, there have been four prime ministers, six chancellors and foreign secretaries, and seven home secretaries since the referendum.
British PM Rishi Sunak attends the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall in the City of London. Credit: Bloomberg
The average tenure for the positions of chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary has fallen below 500 days since mid-2016. Political commentators say the merry-go-round of senior roles has stymied ministers’ ability to effectively master their brief and efficiently enact policies.
Cameron is the first former prime minister to return as an unelected member of a government in half a century, following in the footsteps of Alec Douglas-Home. In Australian politics, it is hard to find anything near equivalent.
Julia Gillard called former NSW premier Bob Carr out of retirement and made him foreign minister to mixed success (he ended up joining a coup to oust her) while Kevin Rudd tried and failed to get former premier Peter Beattie into the House of Representatives only for him to lose to Liberal MP Bert van Manen.
Perhaps the closest thing to Cameron returning to the global stage is Rudd taking up the office of Australia’s ambassador to the United States a decade after his departure from parliament. But even that doesn’t do this comeback justice.
Even stranger is that, only weeks ago, Sunak was painting himself as a change candidate to the days of Cameron et al. The pair are not aligned on many policy fronts. Cameron’s moderate credentials may only be a ploy from Sunak to win back some deserting votes to the Liberal Democrat demographic.
But for Britain’s international allies, Cameron is a known quantity and a friend. The former leader made the Conservatives electable again in 2010, embracing green issues and same-sex marriage and steering them away from being the “nasty party”.
Sunak on the other hand, a Brexiteer and a social conservative, often seemed closer to Suella Braverman, the woman whose sacking paved the way for Cameron’s return.
He has recently watered down net-zero targets and scrapped a high-speed rail link to Manchester, moves that Cameron has criticised.
While Cameron, who won a stunning majority in 2015 despite five years of austerity measures, wore the mantle of high office with ease, his gamble on Brexit backfired on a historic scale.
He can also claim few successes on the foreign policy front. The 2011 intervention he backed in Libya left the country close to being a failed state while – perhaps most dangerous for his reputation in the party – he was dovish towards China, which Sunak has painted as a growing threat. In Cameron’s defence, Australia and the United States have also changed their minds on the subject.
Most damaging to his reputation since he left office was his association with fallen Australian financier Lex Greensill, which led to his being accused of a serious lack of judgment.
What Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong can be assured of though is that Cameron is a friend.
When he addressed federal parliament in 2014, he said he admired Australia as a “can do” country that wants to “shape the world you live in, not be shaped by it”.
“And our nations share a similar outlook on life. We never think twice before jumping in to help.”
It is too early to judge whether Cameron is a serious man for serious times or whether it is just another day in the laughing stock of the British Conservatives.
To be fair, on recent evidence, it can’t get much worse.
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