Working to make government more effective


David Cameron appointment shows the benefits – and downsides – of reviving ministerial careers

The government and parliament still need to find a way to fill the accountability gap.

Foreign secretary Lord David Cameron (left) meets Irish tanaiste Michael Martin
Foreign secretary Lord David Cameron (left) meets Irish tanaiste Michael Martin.

The government is benefiting from the return of David Cameron but, argues Jill Rutter, the Commons should not be the loser

Fourteen years ago, then foreign secretary David Miliband was making the case for the UK to propose a former prime minister as president of the European Council. His case for Tony Blair was that he would: “stop the traffic in Beijing and Moscow”, but then prime minister Gordon Brown did not propose his predecessor. Instead the post went to the much less traffic-stopping Hermann von Rompuy. 

David Cameron may not yet be causing jams in China or Russia, but his appointment as foreign secretary has proved that a British ex-prime minister does, at least for now, have the potential to open doors and diary slots than might otherwise be denied the sixth post-referendum foreign secretary of an administration with remote re-election prospects. But should recalling former big hitters remain a rarity or is the Cameron experience a template that should be followed?

David Cameron is already a presence on the world stage

In the past week alone, Cameron has penned a joint editorial on the need for a “sustainable ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas with Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, dropped in for a chat on Emmanuel Macron and jetted off again to the Middle East. In his first week – he has only been in post since 13 November – he had a call with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken and visited Ukraine (and added a side trip to Moldova). Add in the COP meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders as well as a trip to Washington and a meeting with Maroš Šefčovič in Brussels, and the picture emerges of a renewed energy around British foreign policy and a desire to be at the top table.   

Cameron is clearly determined to pack a lot in after finding his prime ministerial career pre-emptively curtailed by the referendum loss. Six years of writing memoirs, playing tennis and doing some dubious corporate lobbying has left him with a huge amount of pent-up energy. Though not, unlike some former foreign secretaries, an energy directed at working out how to become prime minister. 

Cameron’s appointment allows Sunak to concentrate on domestic policy

In the last few decades, foreign policy has increasingly become the preserve of heads of government rather than their foreign ministers. That reflects the increasing importance of leaders’ summits and the ease of international communication. 

By appointing a former prime minister as his foreign secretary, Rishi Sunak has produced a plausible alternate – already well known on the international stage, and with more experience of top-level engagement than he has been able to amass in his brief ministerial career. That allows Cameron to play surrogate for Sunak – a position eased still further by being a Lords minister and therefore not liable to being pulled back for crunch Commons votes (he may yet be required to attend the Lords when the Rwanda bill finally reaches there).  

Cameron’s status as an ex-PM allows him to engage with prime ministers and presidents as well as foreign ministers, with longer-serving leaders remembering him during his time in No.10. Cameron can also draw on his experience of being part of internal EU discussions on a regular basis and over many years – even though the EU has moved on since Brexit. Cameron is likely to be the last senior UK politician able to call on that set of deep insights. 

Ministers in the Lords – their role and scrutiny

Most ministers are Commons MPs but some, including the foreign secretary David Cameron, sit in the Lords. But what do they do and how are they held to account?

Read our explainer
The House of Lords chamber

The government and parliament still need to find a way to fill the accountability gap

But while Cameron is busy abroad, back at Westminster the story is rather different. He has answered just one set of genteel questions on the floor of the Lords and had a softball session of mutual admiration with his former national security adviser in the chair at the House of Lords European Affairs Committee. He pulled out of a – potentially more box office – showdown with his ancient nemesis Bill Cash at the European Scrutiny Committee and was in the Middle East again rather than answer questions from the Lords Foreign Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, the Commons has to content itself with despatch box appearances by Andrew Mitchell, Cameron’s deputy. 

The leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, has hinted that the government is sympathetic to finding a way of improving accountability to the Commons. But so far there have been no concrete proposals.

The Cameron appointment has shown that there can be benefits in drawing on prior senior ministerial experience – and reviving ministerial careers after a “career break”. Cameron himself turned to former chancellor Ken Clarke after over a decade spent on the backbenches, while Peter Mandelson had been seven years out of ministerial office before Gordon Brown brought him back as business secretary. For Mandelson, like Cameron, the career revival required an appointment to the House Lords. That option may well be tempting to under fire prime ministers, but it can only become routine if MPs (and their constituents) feel they are not losing out.

Related content

12 APR 2024 Podcast

Foreign Office politics

Former ambassador and No.10 adviser Tom Fletcher joins us to explore the UK’s global status and what David Cameron's return has meant for the FCDO.