It is quite incredible really. David Cameron is back. The former prime minister who gambled with the future of his country by calling the Brexit referendum because he wanted to resolve a dispute within his own party is now entrusted with representing British interests on the world stage.
As a European, it is impossible not to laugh: I did, for several minutes, when news broke of his resurrection. But in spite of the staggering irony of it all, this could actually be good news from the perspective of the UK’s allies in Europe and beyond. Politics is the art of the possible, and every appointment should be weighed against its alternatives. Bearing in mind some of the candidates that Rishi Sunak could have chosen to replace James Cleverly at the Foreign Office, this appointment is good news.
True, Cameron’s over-confidence is legendary. He was so sure that remain would win that his government did not even bother to instruct Whitehall departments to prepare properly for the eventuality of Brexit. Seven years of domestic political polarisation and instability, and a complete collapse in trust between the UK and both the EU and the governments of many of its key member states, have ensued. To the credit of Cleverly, these relationships have improved considerably over the past year, but remain far from what they once were.
What many British remainers who resent Cameron for calling the referendum and then fleeing the scene do not understand, however, is that it is Boris Johnson who is blamed by politicians and diplomats across Europe for the post-Brexit fallout, much more than Cameron. Yes, there will be jokes in Brussels, Berlin and Paris about Cameron and his garden shed, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of a basic point: he does not hate the EU, nor – as a new peer – does he need to impress people who do. He is neither an anti-European ideologue, nor a careerist populist who has to sell his every move to the tabloids at home. Not holding deep convictions leaves Cameron open to the charge of opportunism, but it means he can adapt to a drastically changed geopolitical landscape. Given the dismal state of world affairs, this flexibility could be an asset. It is entirely possible, for example, that Cameron’s dovish views on China, criticised by many, will not survive now that he is back in office.
By the current standards of the Tory party, and accepting that the Overton window – the range of political ideas that the public find acceptable – of UK politics has moved to the right, Cameron tends towards the political centre. Consensus and compromise, crucial to European diplomacy, are not against his nature. His appointment is an indication that Sunak is trying not to be driven by the Suella Braverman wing of his party, at least where diplomacy is concerned.
From a European perspective, all this will make Cameron easier to work with than some of his predecessors, especially Johnson and Liz Truss. Cameron’s decision-making, in contrast to theirs, won’t be determined by concerns over his next Tory leadership bid.
Ultimately, the newly ennobled Lord Cameron is a now a caretaker at the Foreign Office. There is only a year left, possibly less, until the next general election. At the moment, there is every indication that it will result in a change of government. But at a time when the world is on fire, it would be wrong and irresponsible to suggest that it no longer matters who runs key UK government departments until then.
The international order is currently under assault on more than one front. The war in Ukraine grinds on, and victory for Vladimir Putin would have dire consequences for European security, as well as being a calamity for the Ukrainian people.
The war between Israel and Hamas carries a considerable risk of escalating into a larger regional conflict. The US, on which European security ultimately depends, is preparing for an election in 2024 that may bring Donald Trump back into the White House.
Diplomats across Europe are nervous about what this could mean for the future of Nato. Some members of Britain’s foreign policy establishment may have a tendency to overestimate the UK’s influence around the world. But the opposite contention, that post-Brexit Britain is largely irrelevant to international diplomacy and security, is equally absurd. If the Democrats lose the White House next year, Britain and its Nato allies in Europe will find themselves in the same leaky boat, which is why greater efforts should be made right now to prepare for this eventuality.
At a time of crisis, the UK’s foreign secretary needs a full contacts book, a realistic view of how international diplomacy works and a personal ability to engage with counterparts. With his experience in summitry, his contacts and lack of ideological fervour, Cameron is not badly placed to do this.skip past newsletter promotion
As unintentionally funny as this latest twist in the UK politics saga seems, European governments and EU member states in particular should welcome Cameron. This is an opportunity to work effectively together in the face of daunting and urgent joint challenges. It was not so very long ago, after all, that such pragmatic and serious cooperation seemed politically impossible.