Former PM Cameron makes shock return to UK government as foreign minister

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Former UK leader David Cameron sensationally returned to the British government as foreign secretary on Monday, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shook up his top team ahead of a general election expected next year.

Sunak sacked right-wing firebrand Suella Braverman as interior minister, after critics accused her of heightening tensions during weeks of contentious pro-Palestinian demonstrations and counter-protests in Britain.

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He replaced her with James Cleverly, who had been foreign secretary, before announcing Cameron as Cleverly’s surprise replacement.

Cameron, 57, quit as prime minister in 2016 after losing the Brexit referendum. He stood down as an MP the same year.

He became mired in scandal in 2021, after lobbying the UK government for finance group Greensill Capital, which later collapsed and the episode was seen as badly tarnishing his reputation.

Cameron will be made a life peer in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber of parliament, Downing Street announced, meaning that he can sit in government.

The former leader said he “gladly accepted” the role as Britain faced “a daunting set of international challenges.”

“While I have been out of front-line politics for the last seven years, I hope that my experience -- as Conservative leader for 11 years and prime minister for six -- will assist me in helping the prime minister to meet these vital challenges,” Cameron added.

‘Desperate’

Following her dismissal, Braverman said “it has been the greatest privilege of my life to serve as home secretary.”

“I will have more to say in due course,” she added.

The changes are part of Sunak’s first major reshuffle of his top ministers since becoming the country’s leader in October last year.

The Conservatives, in power for nearly 14 years, said the changes “strengthen his team in government to deliver long-term decisions for a brighter future.”

Set to be announced throughout the day, they are also expected to reward loyalists and younger emerging MPs, as the party struggles for popularity.

Cameron’s unexpected return surprised even those who comment daily on British politics, and was viewed as having been made with the next general election firmly in mind.

The Tories have trailed the main Labour opposition by double-digit margins throughout Sunak’s time in power, and are widely tipped to lose the contest due next year.

Although he has a high profile and contacts around the world, Cameron’s appointment may not prove a vote winner.

Polling in September showed 45 percent of UK adults felt unfavorably towards him, while only around a quarter held a favorable view.

Tim Bale, politics professor at London’s Queen Mary University, said Sunak was likely drawn to Cameron’s “clout on the international stage” and hoped to appeal to increasingly dissatisfied centrist and center-right voters.

“I’m very skeptical that it’ll make much difference on that or any other score,” he noted. “It looks desperate -- because that is what it is!”

‘Tofu-eating wokerati’

Braverman had stoked controversy throughout her tenure, taking a hardline stance on immigration in particular and regularly wading into so-called culture wars issues which are seen as dividing the electorate.

But her position became increasingly untenable after she last week wrote an explosive newspaper article, without Sunak’s approval, accusing police of bias towards left-wing causes.

The article was blamed for stoking tensions ahead of a weekend of protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which coincided with Armistice Day events, and prompted calls for her to be sacked.

Critics said her comments had encouraged far-right protesters to hold counter demos on the sidelines of the main march on Saturday, which resulted in dozens of arrests.

Downing Street launched an investigation into how the article was published without its consent, as required by the ministerial code.

Braverman’s comments, seen as red meat to the right wing of the governing Conservative party, were also viewed as an attempt to position herself as a future leader of the Tories.

They came after she described the rallies calling for a ceasefire in Gaza as “hate marches,” days after claiming some people were homeless as a “lifestyle choice.”

The right-winger has attacked her critics as liberal “tofu-eating wokerati” while saying shortly after she was appointed that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was her “dream” and “obsession.”

Dramatic gamble

The premier may be trying to shore up support among centrist, more liberal Tory voters who were key to bringing Cameron to power in 2010 and to his outright general election win in 2015. That sense is amplified by doing it on the same day as the departure of Braverman, the pugilistic politician Sunak brought in to mollify the right-wing of his party on taking office just over a year ago.

Cameron’s appointment “put to bed” the “right-wing lurch of the Tory party,” Michael Heseltine, deputy prime minister from 1995 to 1997, told Times Radio.

But it is a dramatic gamble for Sunak as he tries to overturn a 20-point polling deficit to the Labour Party before a general election expected in 2024. Cameron had resigned as premier after the UK voted to leave the European Union, which he campaigned against. He is unpopular with both Remainers and Leavers.

It also raises the question of how Sunak tries to keep the pro-Brexit coalition of voters who backed Boris Johnson in 2019. The prime minister’s strategy has been to try to blend his top team to appeal to both camps. Meanwhile just weeks ago, Sunak had lumped the UK’s political direction under Cameron and other predecessors as 30 years of collective failure.

Just 24 percent of UK adults view Cameron favorably, compared to 45 percent who see him unfavorably, polling company Savanta said on Monday, circulating a survey it conducted about a month ago.

Early reaction to the reshuffle illustrated Tory divisions. Some more centrist MPs welcomed the move including Damian Green, who said on the social media platform X it is “very good news.”

A solid center-right government is what the country needs. Former premier Theresa May wrote on the same platform that Cameron’s “immense experience on the international stage will be invaluable.”

But pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned whether the appointment of Cameron will antagonize some Tory voters and push more of them to the right-wing Reform party.

It’s all happening at a perilous time for Sunak, who must also manage the fallout from firing Braverman. Though allied in their social conservatism and on issues including immigration, her position in Cabinet was increasingly a liability as her language became more strident.

The breaking point appeared to come after Braverman accused London’s Metropolitan Police of bias over its handling of pro-Palestinian protests. Her intervention was blamed for drawing out far-right groups that clashed with officers in London and led to 145 arrests on Saturday.

Ousting her is likely to lead to Braverman becoming a fierce critic of the administration at a crucial time. The UK Supreme Court is due to rule on Wednesday on the legality of the government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, a plan championed by both Braverman and Sunak. If it rules against the government, politicians on the Tory right are likely to ramp up demands for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

Braverman is among those who have voiced her support for doing so, and the risk for Sunak is that he has now created martyr for the cause.

So the politics surrounding Sunak were febrile even before the Cameron announcement. In a statement on his new role, the former prime minister said the UK will “stand by our allies and “make sure our voice is heard on challenges from the Middle East to Ukraine.”

Yet Cameron was notably dovish toward China during his prem-iership, a position that is now at adds with the increasingly anti-China sentiment in the Conservative Party. In 2020 Cameron was involved in efforts to raise a UK-China investment fund, but the effort struggled to gain traction.

“Cameron is out of step with Parliament and the country on China,” Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said on X, calling the move “incomprehensible and retrograde.”

“It’s a pretty desperate, even absurd move which also will annoy a whole bunch of Tory MPs — in part because they despise Cameron, in part because it suggests Sunak thinks there’s so little talent in the Commons that he’s had to put a scandal-ridden former PM in the Lords in order to inject some supposed quality into his Cabinet,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University.

Read more:

UK’s Braverman sacked over comments on police handling of pro-Palestinian march

Violence at London march puts spotlight on PM Sunak’s leadership

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