For those interested in international politics, two of the main events that happened last week (outside the killings, meetings and summits around the world) were the sacking of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary and the appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary (on Monday 13th November 2023) by the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The moves were part of a major and dramatic Cabinet reshuffle in a conservative led government whose days in power many are already counting down. Who lives will see…, our reflection today is however more about the return of David Cameron.
When the news of the appointment of David Cameron as the new Foreign Secretary hit the news rooms, one of the most frequent words used to describe his appointment was “surprise”. Most people in the world did not see his appointment coming at all and that includes attentive observers such as correspondents following Downing Street affairs and even party insiders. Surely some people knew about it but clearly most did not know. The London based Guardian newspaper posted a live coverage of two reporters expressing their surprise on air. It was a moment that saw insiders react like common citizens. David Cameron got out of his car to walk into the Downing Street and the reporters trying to figure who it was exclaimed “incredible, it is David Cameron… he is going to be the new Foreign Secretary…” Yes, it was one of those moments in which history is made right in front of everybody.
David Cameron was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2005 to 2016, before then he was Leader of the Opposition from 2005 to 2010. With this new appointment he becomes the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. Beyond the merit or otherwise of this appointment there are some useful insights for all us in the UK and across the world as students of politics and anyone interested in government and governance as practised in the UK. The first thing to take away is the speech made by the new Foreign Secretary, the man had stayed away from politics for over six years and one of the first things he did was to explain to all how he sees politics: “a public service”. There are notable consequences to this stance, one is that one goes into politics to help the public and it is fine to come in any position to serve, the other is that one is ready to serve the head of the government of the day. In his own words “I believe in public service. That is what first motivated me to get involved in politics in the 1980s, to work in government in the 1990s, become a Member of Parliament in the 2000s and put myself forward as Party Leader and Prime Minister…”
That is a personal position, there are also some lessons about system. Technically, no law stops a former head of government from becoming a minister or take up any other position in government after leaving but in practice we see this happen only in parliamentary forms of government wherein the prevailing spirit is that of “first amongst equals”, not of a president that is treated like an unquestionable god amongst followers, and devotees and that of collective responsibility. David Cameron himself was quick to point out that though he does not agree with every position of his new boss, he knows that he has to and he is willing to serve as part of a collective and take responsibility for the action of the collective. What happens if one disagrees with the position of the collective in a parliamentary system of government? Resignation or sack is the simple answer.
In a world or personalised processes and showmanship, the appointment of David Cameron as the new Foreign Secretary also allows us to rediscover how crucial the principle of the supremacy of parliament is in the UK and in every parliamentary system worth its salt. To ensure the actions of government are scrutinised and approved by the representative of the people, the tradition in the UK is that members of government must belong to parliament. Their presence therein is amongst other things to assure accessibility for the people’s representatives to government and continuous accountability of the government to people’s representatives. In a parliamentary system, parliamentarians want members of government to be one of them so that they not only have a clear direct constituency to respond to electorally but also to be someone that can relate to the pains and other issues fellow parliamentarians have to deal with as representatives of other constituency in the country. This kind of system ensures that ministers and others that serve in government are not answerable only to the head of government but also directly to the country.
The appointment of David Cameron also gives some insights to the politics of the Prime Minister, by choosing a known entity such as David Cameron, Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister and leader of the conservative party signifies a shift from a right hard politics to a moderate approach that new Foreign Secretary represents. It is safe to assume that with David Cameron back at the centre of government, the government itself is heading towards the centre. Though most recognise the experience the former Prime Minister is bringing to the government at a time when international politics matter a lot and the economy is not booming, not everyone sees the return of David Cameron as a good move. The most shared opinion is that the move is a gamble by the current Prime Minister, a gamble taken with the aim of fortifying and unifying his government and to try something radically different with the hope of changing his government and party’s fortune.
Outside the palaces and politics of government and opposition, we as a people will continue to get examples and events to reflect on as the new Foreign Secretary settles into his role and commence acting. David Cameron is the man that in a private conversation described Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt” but he is also the man that insist that collaboration with Africa and developing countries is paramount to the UK. Who lives will see…
Join me if you can on twitter @anthonykila to continue these conversations.
•Anthony Kila is Institute Director at CIAPS. www.ciaps.org.