One more time, with feeling: The reinvention of David Cameron

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One more time, with feeling: The reinvention of David Cameron

By Rob Harris

London: David Cameron exudes the energy of a man given a fleeting second chance with only a finite amount of time.

His shock return as Britain’s foreign secretary last November was treated by an understandably cynical public with much derision. Yet six months on, the now Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton has brought verve and urgency to Rishi Sunak’s otherwise discredited and exhausted Conservative government.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron prepares to address guests in his first keynote speech since returning to politics.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron prepares to address guests in his first keynote speech since returning to politics.Credit: Getty

Reborn with a more hawkish posture on security matters, Cameron has warned that his new role is like being a foreign minister or a leader in Europe in the 1930s.

“If Putin’s illegal invasion teaches us anything, it must be that doing too little, too late, only spurs an aggressor on,” Cameron said in his first major speech on his portfolio on Thursday.

“From Tallinn to Warsaw, Prague to Bucharest, a chill has once more descended across the European continent. Those nations closest to Russia are seeing what is happening in Ukraine and wondering if they will be next. ”

Cameron thinks the West is in “a battle of wills” with an authoritarian cabal – Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – that believes “they can outlast us, can endure more pain, make more sacrifices”, and insists that “we in Britain, and in the wider West, have agency. The question is whether we have the courage to use it”.

“If you want a picture of the dangers in the world, you can actually look right here at home in the last few months,” he said, pointing to attacks on UK democracy from China, including spying on the Electoral Commission and cyber targeting of MPs.

“Reminders of the wide-ranging, covert Russian playbook, including a suspected sabotage attack on a warehouse in east London just last week. And – as the director general of MI5 has made clear – numerous Iranian plots to assassinate British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime, again right here in the UK.”


Rewriting a mixed political legacy

Cameron’s allies say he was persuaded to return to frontline politics via the House of Lords by his long-time friend and former foreign secretary William Hague and others because he did not want to be remembered for the humiliation of losing the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

David Cameron visits Turkmenistan’s National Carpet Museum during his five-day visit to Central Asia in April.

David Cameron visits Turkmenistan’s National Carpet Museum during his five-day visit to Central Asia in April.Credit: Getty

As prime minister, he’d overseen austerity measures that many blame for the degraded public realm at home, the ill-fated military intervention in Libya, the naive pursuit of a “golden age” with China, and the Brexit vote – sometimes described as the biggest blunder since Lord North oversaw Britain’s catastrophic defeat in the American War of Independence, which lost the colony.

More recently, as an adviser to Greensill Capital, the financial services company that collapsed in 2021, Cameron had become embroiled in a major lobbying scandal. So becoming foreign secretary was a chance, Hague persuaded him, to rewrite and amend his legacy.

“Yes, I supported remaining in the EU,” Cameron said on Thursday. “But I am now laser-like focused on ensuring Britain and the EU have the best possible relationship, not as members, but as friends, neighbours and partners.”

Since last November, Cameron has visited 33 countries and crisscrossed six continents. He’s been to the Middle East six or so times and Ukraine a similar amount.

Last week he promised $US3.74 billion of annual military aid for Ukraine for “as long as it takes” on, adding that he had no objection to the weapons being used inside Russia.

Making Britain’s presence felt in the Middle East

Earlier this year he suggested that the UK could unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state in the aftermath of any ceasefire in Gaza. With his intervention, he outflanked both Downing Street and the Labour Party and shifted the terms of debate.


Sunak has appeared to give him free rein because he is either not that interested or focused on foreign affairs, particularly when so much is going wrong domestically.

Sophia Gaston, the head of foreign policy at the leading Westminster think tank, Policy Exchange, said Cameron was running the British Foreign Office like “a man on borrowed time”.

“He is completely focused on achieving meaningful, short-term outcomes, which is unusual in a field often characterised by incremental and uneven progress,” Gaston said.

“In front of the camera, his public diplomacy has chalked up some considerable wins, although at times his legacy as prime minister has come back to haunt him.”

She says the crux of the Cameron 2.0 era is an argument that the world has changed, and he has along with it. Gaston says Cameron is one of the most political foreign secretaries of the modern age in an era that demands it.

“In an election year, his role is to communicate how his indefatigable diplomacy is delivering tangible results for the British people – a task made more important by the fact that the government’s domestic record has been weaker than its international scorecard.”

Defending the West’s democratic values

Few things show how far the Tories have strayed from Cameron’s centrist era than his position on international aid, which he still believes is “not just a moral good”, but a soft power in the fight against terrorism and reaction.

“I am a passionate believer in the power of aid and proud of my role in helping to design the sustainable development goals and boost Britain’s aid spending,” he said, pointing to the BBC World Service, which reaches over 300 million listeners each week and supports independent media in places such as Moldova and Bosnia, both under threat from Russian bullying and manipulation tactics.

In the Middle East, the UK has remained broadly supportive of Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas after the October 7 attacks and, controversially, pulled its funding for the UN’s Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA. But Cameron has simultaneously urged Israel to allow more aid into Gaza and followed the US in sanctioning a limited number of West Bank Settlers.

Cameron has pledged support to Ukraine for “as long as it takes”.

Cameron has pledged support to Ukraine for “as long as it takes”.

Tim Eaton, at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, says Cameron has sought to make his presence felt through high-level diplomacy over Israel and Palestine, including contributing to plans for the “day after” Israel’s assault on Gaza.

But he says despite Cameron’s energy, the UK’s response towards Gaza and the region in general remains reactive and Britain is not at the forefront of discussion on what comes next.

“The UK has been weakened by Brexit, internal feuding and diminished economic, diplomatic and military capacity, making it harder for Cameron to get his voice heard,” he says.

“The West in general is less influential in the Middle East [and] North Africa than it once was, and the UK, after loosening ties to the EU, is less influential within that Western bloc.”

But Cameron clearly disagrees.

“There are vital areas where our action is decisive, but often we are a state whose decisions and adept diplomacy can influence the approaches of others,” he said.

“Why does Ukraine call us their number one ally? Not just for the level of our support and the speed in which we delivered it, but it’s how we’ve galvanised others.”

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