As political comebacks go, former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s return to government as foreign secretary is more dramatic and unexpected than most.
After unsuccessfully campaigning during the 2016 Brexit referendum for Britain to vote to “remain” in the European Union, Cameron resigned immediately and has been out of politics since.
He is not even a lawmaker, and his return to senior government leadership as an unelected member of Parliament’s House of Lords, though not unprecedented, is rare and has prompted concerns about accountability.
“I know it’s not usual for a prime minister to come back in this way, but I believe in public service,” Cameron told reporters Monday.
Monday’s major Cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sees Cameron joining a small club of former British premiers who have returned to government in a lesser role. Only about a dozen other former British leaders have done so since the 1700s.
Questions have been raised about Sunak’s decision given that Cameron’s legacy on Brexit and other political decisions remains deeply contentious.
An Oxford-educated former public relations executive , Cameron led the Conservatives back to power in 2010 after 13 years in opposition. He led Britain for six years, and in the first of his two terms in office his party shared power with the smaller Liberal Democrats in an uneasy coalition.
Cameron was 43 when he entered No. 10 Downing Street as one of the youngest prime ministers in British history, and many observers at the time compared his youthful charisma to that of former Labour premier Tony Blair.
Like Blair he worked to steer his party toward the middle ground, championing what he called “compassionate Conservatism” in a bid to boost the Tories’ popularity.
But for many, his harsh austerity economics and his fateful decision to hold the Brexit vote remain the landmarks of his time in power, with the impact of both still reverberating in the U.K.
Under Cameron, Britain’s government made deep cuts to social welfare and other public spending in healthcare and education in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crash.
His promise to hold a referendum on EU membership, a bid to placate rebellious Conservatives and to ward off the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, spelled his downfall. Cameron’s “remain” side was defeated, gaining 48% of the vote compared to 52% for the “leave” camp.
The U.K. left the EU in 2020 after a messy divorce, and thorny post-Brexit trade disputes continue to loom over politics in Northern Ireland.
During his tenure, Cameron led closer economic and trade ties between Britain and China, presiding over a so-called “golden era” of Sino-British relations as he drank beer with Chinese President Xi Jinping at an English pub during a state visit.
His stance is now criticized by many in Britain as having been misguided given that Beijing’s influence is increasingly seen as a threat to international security.
Sunak’s office maintains that Cameron is “an established figure on the world stage” who can bring “a huge amount of experience” to the role.
But many observers see Sunak’s move to bring back Cameron as a gamble with uncertain pay-off.
“(Sunak) is trying to look to others who might represent a smoother form of government than he’s been able to deliver,” Toby Helm, political editor of The Observer, told the BBC. But “it may look like he can’t find enough sensible people in his own party,” he said.
“Cameron will come across as a competent, appealing foreign secretary to some,” he added. “But I think the imagery that surrounds him, the impression that appointment gives, is somewhat desperate.”