News & Insights | Posted November 17, 2023
Cameron’s comeback: A gambit fraught with risk and reward, overshadowed by petulance
While Suella Braverman’s essay on “What the PM Promised Me” caused the biggest stir post-reshuffle, it is David Cameron’s unexpected return to the political stage that requires more investigating. Arron Gatley assesses some of the key factors that will determine whether Rishi Sunak’s political gamble will pay off.
It’s difficult to overstate the value of experience in a tired government.
David Cameron’s six-year tenure as Prime Minister therefore should make him a goldmine of experience for Rishi Sunak’s administration. His intimate understanding of the intricate nature of governance, the weight of public expectations and the various nuances of international diplomacy offers Sunak a mentor, a strategic sounding board, and a wellspring of wisdom in navigating the complex waters of British politics. That’s the theory anyway.
Much has been made this week about Sunak possibly reversing from his ‘change’ agenda outlined at September’s party conference. That’s too simplistic. The PM – and his key advisers, most notably Liam Booth-Smith – believe they need to show the electorate that the party is still capable of changing, but they have clearly listened to other voices advising that change needs to be balanced with credibility and experience, which Cameron can deliver on a number of fronts.
A calculated risk with potential rewards
Sunak’s decision to reintroduce Cameron is not without its share of risks. With his links to China, various lobbying scandals and Brexit there is the potential to create more friction within Cabinet – never mind the membership and hardcore backbenchers. And you can bet that Labour, will look to use it to their advantage – some already are.
This fails to see the potential benefits Cameron can bring – he could well be an effective weapon for the Conservatives in the General Election. Beyond being a very good media operator, his presence will help mobilise traditional and younger Conservative voters, reinvigorating the party’s base vote, as it did in 2015. His perceived appeal in “Blue Wall” areas, will likely be used to try to hold back the Lib Dems.
If nothing else, his experience in navigating complex political landscapes and counsel could prove invaluable in the campaign whilst also providing additional bandwidth for Sunak to “box off” the Middle East as an issue, freeing up his attention to focus domestically.
A message of seriousness and experience
David Cameron’s return signifies more than a mere reshuffling of personnel. Fed up with being seen in recent years by the electorate as “not Labour” and stagnating in the polls, the PM has decided to throw a final roll of the dice to try and regain its reputation as a party of experience and competence. Their hope ultimately is that this effort is effective ahead of the next general election.
The Conservatives however have their own issues in landing this message. People are still getting over the Truss administration – and the damage it wrought. If nothing else, Cameron will help rebuild perceptions that there is no experience around the Cabinet table – and will remind the electorate of the Conservatives’ previous electoral successes. Sunak will just be hoping Cameron isn’t permanently hobbled by the Brexit referendum fallout in the eyes of voters.
Why do we ‘wave goodbye’ to political talent?
Cameron’s comeback also challenges the conventional notion that once a PM leaves office, they are consigned to the political sidelines. His return suggests a growing recognition of the enduring value of experienced politicians encouraging them to contribute their expertise rather than opting for premature retirement.
There is an argument that the decision to bring back Cameron is in fact a sign that the Prime Minister is out of ideas and options when it comes to reinvigorating the party after 13 years in power. Let’s wait and see. There is a strong argument it is a strategic and positive move to get more experience and stability into the top of the Party in the run-up to next year’s Election.
Regardless of public perception, the success or failure of Cameron’s return hinges on his ability to effectively collaborate with Sunak and other cabinet members. He will already be thinking about a potential Parliamentary Private Secretary, assessing carefully about the sort of message he wants to send. “Red Wall” vs “Blue Wall”, new intake vs old, while also navigating internal conflicts and political challenges, he hasn’t been part of for seven years.
The intricacies of political partnerships underscore the interpersonal dynamics crucial to effective governance. This move isn’t unprecedented and we can see it throughout our modern political history with relative success.
For example, Alec Douglas-Home was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1970, after serving as Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964 and Arthur Balfour was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1916, after serving as Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905.
Success is contingent on a delicate balance of egos, ideologies, and a shared commitment to common goals. This shouldn’t be too hard to broker, as Rishi was a full, paid-up member of the Cameron cohort who entered Parliament in 2015.
A bold manoeuvre with transformative potential
Ultimately, the success of David Cameron’s return will hinge on his ability to effectively collaborate with Sunak and other cabinet members, navigate the complex waters of British politics, and adapt to the evolving geopolitical landscape. We are watching this space with great interest.
Director at 56 Degrees North