By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak brought back former leader David Cameron as foreign minister on Monday in a reshuffle triggered by his firing of interior minister Suella Braverman after her criticism of police threatened his authority.
It was the latest reset for a prime minister whose Conservative Party is badly lagging the Labour Party before an election expected next year. Cameron’s return suggested Sunak wanted to bring in a more centrist, experienced hand rather than appease the populist right of his party which backed Braverman.
It also reawakens divisive debate over Brexit: Cameron held the referendum on European Union membership in 2016 and was hated by many on the right of the party after he campaigned to remain. He quit soon after Britain voted 52%-48% to leave.
The ministerial reshuffle followed growing criticism of Braverman from opposition lawmakers and members of the governing Conservatives, enabling Sunak to bring in allies and remove ministers he felt were not performing.
His hand was forced when the ever-controversial Braverman defied him last week in an unauthorised article accusing police of “double standards” at protests, suggesting they were tough on right-wing demonstrators, but easy on pro-Palestinian marchers.
The main opposition Labour Party said her comments had inflamed tensions between a pro-Palestinian demonstration and a far-right counter protest on Saturday, when nearly 150 people were arrested.
While her removal was no surprise, it was the appointment of Cameron which caused shock in the party. It was welcomed by more centrist lawmakers but loathed by some on the right who described it as the ultimate “Brexit surrender”.
Cameron said he was glad to take on his new role at a time of global change. “I know it’s not usual for a prime minister to come back in this way but I believe in public service.
“I hope that six years as prime minister, 11 years leading the Conservative Party gives me some useful experience and contacts and relationships and knowledge,” he told reporters, saying he would tow the government line despite having disagreed with Sunak at times in the past.
Cameron has been out of politics since 2016 and will be able to return to government via an appointment to the House of Lords upper house of parliament.
Sunak’s press secretary said the prime minister launched the reshuffle to create a “strong, united team that will be focused on delivery”, after the government had come under fire for failing to meet some of its pledges.
But Cameron’s return compounded the anger felt by some on the right after Braverman’s sacking. They backed her stance on protests and immigration and predicted she would remain a vocal force.
One lawmaker, Andrea Jenkyns, wrote a letter to the head of the 1922 Committee that governs Conservative lawmakers calling for a no confidence vote in Sunak over what she called his Machiavellian role in ousting former prime minister Boris Johnson and the “purge of the centre-right from his cabinet”.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 53 of the 350 Conservative lawmakers in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the 1922 Committee.
Some Brexit supporters said Cameron’s role in the Brexit vote meant the “remain” wing of the party had taken over, while others questioned how Sunak could bring back a man who in 2021 was criticised for lobbying government during COVID on behalf of supply chain finance firm Greensill as it collapsed.
Asked about the case, Cameron said “all those things were dealt with by the Treasury select committee, by other inquiries … as far as I am concerned that is all dealt with”.
James Cleverly, previously foreign minister, was appointed to replace Braverman. He is seen as a safe pair of hands and said his new role was “to keep people in this country safe”.
His first challenge will come on Wednesday when the Supreme Court rules on whether asylum seekers can be deported to Rwanda. A defeat would lead some lawmakers to amplify calls for Britain to quit the European Convention on Human Rights.
With Braverman sidelined, her attentions might focus on preparing for a possible future race for leader of the party if, as opinions polls suggest, the Conservatives lose the election expected next year.
The Labour Party has consistently held an around 20-point lead in the polls, and Sunak has failed to reduce that gap.
He tried to relaunch himself as a representative of “change” at his party’s conference last month, when his message was overshadowed by a poorly communicated decision to cancel part of the country’s biggest rail project.
Labour had called Sunak weak since Braverman’s article was published on Wednesday. Now, opposition lawmakers said his decision to appoint Cameron was an act of desperation.
Lawmaker Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, said: “A few weeks ago Rishi Sunak said David Cameron was part of a failed status quo, now he’s bringing him back as his life raft.”
“This puts to bed the prime minister’s laughable claim to offer change from 13 years of Tory failure.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill, Alistair Smout, Sachin Ravikumar, Kylie MacLellan, Sarah Young, Muvija M, Will James; Editing by Kate Holton, Andrew Cawthorne and Christina Fincher)