Rishi Sunak’s decision to bring David Cameron back into government is a bold act of surrender. It is an admission that the only way out of the mess the Tories are in might be back the way they came.
There is practical utility in having a former prime minister at the Foreign Office in times of global crisis. Cameron has experience in diplomacy and security matters that no candidate in the cabinet can match. His restoration, coupled with Suella Braverman’s departure, also has a domestic function in reminding voters of a level-headed brand of Conservatism that was elbowed aside by the swivel-eyed nationalist tendency.
Sunak’s government now looks a bit less repellent to disillusioned Tories in the party’s southern heartlands – the so-called blue wall – where Liberal Democrats are eyeing up seats.
Such gains are offset by the frenzy of resentment on the right at the loss of Braverman from the cabinet – an injury to which Cameron’s return adds piquant insult. The only trend many voters will notice is an upsurge in vicious factional strife.
Cameron could soon find himself called on to defend Britain’s signature on the European Convention on Human Rights against people who think his very presence in the cabinet indicates a moral capitulation to continental influence. The Tory party could come to look like a battle re-enactment society for Eurosceptic cranks.
Whatever comes next, it won’t bolster Sunak’s claim to be a change candidate, campaigning to end 30 years of failed orthodoxy. As a general election strategy, that already looked far-fetched when it was rehearsed at the Conservative conference last month. Now it is dead.
A prime minister driven by a sincere commitment to wiping the political slate clean would use a cabinet reshuffle to showcase talented young MPs, all loyal to their leader’s vision. Cameron filled a high-profile vacancy because no such cadre exists.
The deficit goes well beyond matters of personnel. If Sunak’s idea of political change were derived from conviction, he would worry about the whiff of sleaze trailing behind Cameron from the lobbying scandal that has been his most memorable contribution to politics since leaving office.
If the prime minister’s Brexit faith were sturdy, he would share hardline colleagues’ mistrust of Cameron as the man who only gave voters the option of leaving the EU because he complacently assumed he could charm them into staying.
For true believers, Brexit was a crusade for national self-determination and a revolution that needed vigilant defence against Europhile backsliding and establishment sabotage. Putting foreign policy in the hands of the remainer in chief, less than three years after quitting the EU, suggests a view in Downing Street that maybe the counter-revolution had a point after all.
The prime minister’s relationship with his party has been defined by this tension since the leadership contest he lost to Liz Truss. She had voted remain, but appealed to grassroots Tories as the more reliable carrier of a volatile Brexit spirit that is hard to define but easily measured in units of loyalty to Boris Johnson.
As one of his former boss’s political assassins, Sunak put himself beyond trust on that score. But he was also undone by subtler signifiers – the Prada shoes, the stint at Goldman Sachs, the presumptuous air of a fast-track prodigy waiting impatiently for the call to board No 10 from the first-class travellers’ lounge. He found himself caricatured as an avatar of jet-setting globalisation – the type denigrated by Theresa May as a “citizen of nowhere” who could not grasp the leave-voting instincts of common folk.
Sunak’s voting record and campaign pledges were wholly aligned with hard-Brexit orthodoxy. The party still decided that his Tory vibe was more Cameron-era “modernisation”.
That suspicion will now be upgraded to a full-on conspiracy theory with Cameron sitting in Sunak’s cabinet, although in policy terms the two men disagree on Europe, HS2 and more.
It isn’t all that clear what they do agree on. But they are both exemplars of a Tory tradition that long predates Brexit. It is the belief that the natural state of British government is rule by people like them – Conservatives whose opinions can be extreme as long as they are worn casually, with affected moderation. And no conviction should ever be held so tightly that it impedes the task of grabbing and keeping power.
Cameron and Sunak, despite very different backgrounds, radiate a similar sense of entitlement to the highest political offices that contains no obvious motive for wanting to be there beyond a sense that it is the job for which their elite education groomed them. (Plus, having enough money already, they aren’t put off by meagre remuneration compared with what might be earned as captains of finance.)
One difference is that inherited wealth has inculcated in Cameron that imperviousness to the sting of failure which amounts to a posh superpower. He gambled with the cornerstones of Britain’s foreign and economic policy, blew the lot and walked away from the table humming a jaunty tune. He idled away a few years piling up cash at the high-rollers’ lobbying game, but when that spoiled his reputation he realised it was beneath his dignity. Besides, he was bored. Now he wants another go at statecraft.
Sunak is thinner skinned. He seems disoriented by his inability to succeed as prime minister and wounded by the country’s ingratitude in failing to recognise the hard work he is putting in on its behalf. There is a ring of personal defeat about the decision to call in Cameron at this stage.
There might be some gain available in the return of an old-guard leader, but the pitch is nostalgia. It was meant to be change. Sunak is harking back to an idea of what the Conservative party was before 2016, before the Brexit revolution. But that isn’t the party he leads. He is borrowing political capital from the Tory past to bail himself out in the present, desperate to stop the slide into electoral insolvency.