‘Big hitter’ Cameron returns to UK government, as critics call it desperate

By Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – Seven years ago, David Cameron left Downing Street after his big gamble to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union backfired and brought his six-year term as prime minister to an end.

A few months later his political career appeared to be over as he resigned his seat in parliament, with opponents blaming him for the defeat in the referendum in which he had campaigned for “remain” and Brexit supporters saying he had failed to implement a proper strategy to prepare for departure.

News that he had been appointed foreign secretary by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday delighted the centrist wing of the ruling Conservative Party, who said Britain needed a big hitter on the global stage who would also prove an electoral asset.

But for critics of Sunak, the appointment of someone whose policies he has criticised – and who in return has been dismissive of his own leadership – was a desperate act to resurrect his ailing government, languishing some 20 points behind in opinion polls with an election expected next year.

“Though I may have disagreed with some individual decisions, it is clear to me that Rishi Sunak is a strong and capable prime minister, who is showing exemplary leadership at a difficult time,” Cameron said in a statement after his appointment.

In the years since leaving office, much of the policy agenda Cameron pursued as prime minister has been ditched by his successors, particularly his charm offensive with China and unsuccessful attempts to court Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his comeback seem even more remarkable.


Cameron said he wanted to be China’s closest friend in the West as he sought Chinese investment for British infrastructure, and stated that relations with Beijing were in a “golden era” in 2015, when President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Britain.

But last November, Sunak said in a major speech that the golden era was over “along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform”, as London restricted Chinese investment over national security concerns and expressed concern at Beijing’s military and economic assertiveness.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told Reuters he did not expect the appointment to change British policy. “The ‘golden era’ remains in the history, and is not about to be resurrected,” he said.

Just a month ago, Sunak had completely distanced himself from Cameron’s government, telling his party conference he was the man to change what he described as 30 years of an inefficient “political status quo”.

That prompted Cameron himself to say the comments would fuel the view of opponents that his party could not think in the long term and that it was heading in the wrong direction.

“David Cameron was a disastrous PM. This is a last gasp act of desperation from a government devoid of talent and ideas,” said David Lammy, the foreign affairs spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party.


Cameron became the country’s youngest prime minister for almost two centuries in 2010, when he also headed the first coalition government since World War Two.

But, he alienated some on the party’s right-wing, especially those who wanted Britain out of the EU, as he sought to modernise the Conservative’s agenda by backing issues such as same-sex marriage and showing concern for the environment.

Centrist Conservative lawmakers believe Cameron will help the party win back voters who have been put off by its more populist recent right-wing turn.

But Cameron also comes with baggage, not least the anger his appointment has prompted from those who backed Brexit.

In 2021, he was also criticised by a parliamentary committee after he lobbied ministers and senior officials on behalf of supply chain finance firm Greensill as it collapsed.

One former minister put the cost to taxpayers at least 1 billion pounds ($1.22 billion).

“David Cameron was at the heart of the biggest lobbying scandal of recent times,” said the Liberal Democrat party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran.

As the son of a wealthy stockbroker who was educated at Britain’s most exclusive private school, Eton College, he also is open to the same criticism of being out of touch with the public that is aimed at Sunak, who with his wife Akshata Murthy, are the richest couple to ever occupy Downing Street.

“I understand there’s a lot of baggage that comes with David Cameron,” Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood told Times Radio.

His colleague Dehenna Davidson said Cameron’s vision of the party was the very reason she was in parliament.

Theresa May, who replaced Cameron as prime minister before being ousted herself amid a party rebellion over Brexit three years later, said his experience would be invaluable.

“Looking forward to working together again!” she tweeted.

($1 = 0.8166 pounds)

(Additional reporting by Martin Pollard; Editing by Alex Richardson)