What does David Cameron mean for British Foreign Policy?
BY JAMIE MUTCH
As I rolled out of bed on Tuesday morning I was greeted by a rather peculiar message from a friend. “Looks like Cameron’s foreign minister” it read. And no, I wasn't still dreaming - if I had been Cleverly would have stayed in post. Lord David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, who brought us Brexit, austerity, and a strange story about a pig, was back in high office. His appointment seemingly taking everyone by surprise, not least me still in my pyjamas.
It can be easy to see Cameron as a spent political leader from a by-gone age; one of the many responsible for what Rishi Sunak labelled as ‘30 years of failure’ at his party conference just last month. Yet despite what Rishi feels about Cameron, although it is apparent his opinion has changed very rapidly, the former Prime minister is a heavyweight in the global political arena. “Welcome back David Cameron!” gushed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Ritter upon his former European Council colleague’s appointment. This was followed by a phone call from America's chief diplomat Anthony Blinken and kind words from Cameron’s counterparts in Germany, Czechia, and Estonia, all keen to have the former PM on side. Indeed, Cameron brings with him relationships built up over a decade as Conservative Party leader and 6 years at No. 10. His time as PM coincided with that of many other leaders that remain to this day, namely Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Joe Biden during his time as vice-president.
This experience will undoubtedly benefit our foreign policy. Cameron will garner great attention on visits abroad, tempting world leaders, many of whom he will consider old friends, to come and see him in a way no MP bar the prime minister could replicate. He will maximise the reach of British influence; a task that is vital in a post-Brexit era where it seems to be fading. And his unique position in the House of Lords means he has no constituency to represent, giving him more time to jet set across the globe and do his job.
Yet the world that is awaiting him has changed dramatically since his last time in office. How he will quite fit into this new landscape is yet unknown, but his track record presents an interesting indication of how it might all play out. One potential point of divergence from Cleverly’s tenure could be on China. It is widely understood that Cameron takes a favourable position towards Beijing, one that risks contradicting the Prime Minister who declared the ‘golden age of Sino-British relations’, a phrase coined by Cameron in 2015, as having now ended. Chinese state media reported this week that his appointment would “breathe new life into the China-UK relationship”, a compliment he would have been hesitant to receive. Relations have significantly cooled since Cameron’s day. His stance appears increasingly untenable. In March a parliamentary researcher with links to security minister Tom Tugendhat was arrested under the Official Secrets Act on suspicion of spying for Beijing. This was followed by a damning report by the intelligence and security committee in July which labelled the government's response to Chinese espionage as “completely inadequate”. China poses a more significant threat to our democracy and national security than any other adversary. It is vital that Cameron’s position is moulded into one that is more beneficial to the national interest.
Top of the foreign secretary’s brief will undoubtedly be the current Israeli-Hamas conflict. His past-actions tell a mixed picture. During his first PMQs in 2010 he said he considered himself a “friend of Israel”; but later that year, in a visit to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he declared that “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp”. Though the current conflict will prove a tougher challenge, he did throw his support behind Israel during “Operation Protective Edge” - a military operation launched in Gaza following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers by a Hamas affiliated group in 2014. The scale of the current conflict, and its backlash, is far wider this time round and will ask more of the former Prime Minister. It is likely he will attempt to play on his relationships in the middle east to support humanitarian efforts in Gaza and prevent a wider conflict from emerging. Of particular interest are Cameron’s ties to King Abdullah II of Jordan, with the now foreign secretary having attended the royal wedding of his son, the crown prince, in June. The west missed a vital opportunity to engage with Abdullah following the cancellation of a meeting with President Biden in October. Cameron will be keen to prove his worth by orchestrating some form of diplomacy with the monarch and prove the UK still has a role to play in the region.
Back home it is doubtful the impact his appointment will have on the Conservatives dismal performance in the polls. Labour has already begun to frame it as a desperate move of a failing government. Questions will have to be answered about his dealings with China. But say what you will about Cameron, once the dust settles and he begins to represent the nation abroad he will undoubtedly be a priceless asset to British foreign policy.
Image: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Str