Dave rides to the rescue
“What the hell?” As the figure emerged from the car in Downing Street on Monday morning, someone in the Sky News studio could be heard, very faintly, speaking for the nation.
It was David Cameron! A little fuller in his suit, a little greyer on top, but let’s face it, aren’t we all? Like Gandalf, we had seen him fall and thought him lost for ever, but now he had come back to us at what Rishi Sunak clearly hopes is the turn of the tide. Prime Minister David Cameron, that was what they used to call him. Now he was Foreign Secretary David Cameron.
In Westminster, we were talking of little else. It eclipsed even the sacking of Suella Braverman which had kicked the day off. Lyndon Johnson famously observed that it was better to have J Edgar Hoover “inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”. Braverman had made Sunak’s decision easier with her unique approach of being inside the tent and still pissing in.
Over on Twitter, the official Tory feed was making a desperate attempt to cover the reshuffle as though the government were a struggling football club whose wealthy new owner had opened the chequebook. “HERE WE GO,” it said at the start of the day. “Rishi Sunak strengthens his team.”
Each appointment was announced with a natty graphic. “Vicky Atkins – Health Sec,” read one. “Will cut waiting lists.” Sadly it didn’t cover people who were losing jobs, which would have been much more fun: “Suella B – Backbenches. Will lie in wait for revenge.”
The Tories greeted the big news of the day with the words “He’s back 🔥”, as though Cameron were Churchill returning to the Admiralty in 1939. “AGREEMENT REACHED,” it trilled later. “Laura Trott takes up a position in the Treasury as Chief Secretary.” It was all very oddly knowing, leading to the terrifying thought that the Conservative Party has become self-aware.
Look to his coming at first light. Look to the East
Not all Conservatives. “Daddy’s home,” radio host Iain Dale quoted a fellow Tory saying on hearing the news that Cameron was back. The image may have been horrible, but this, in essence, was the argument for the appointment: Sunak’s government is bad at stuff, and the first step to recovery is acknowledging that you need help, and Cameron is good at stuff. As I walked into Portcullis House on Monday, I encountered a Tory delighted that Sunak was, as he saw it, rejecting the divisive approach of Braverman in favour of the genial centrism of Dave.
The question is whether Baron Cameron of Greensill, 2023 edition, has the same not-quite-winning magic as Call-Me-Dave, 2009 edition. His approach of sucking up to China, both in government and then afterwards in the private sector, has not aged well. How will it translate to the Foreign Office?
He tried to deal with the complicated question of his various business activities over the past seven years in an early BBC interview. “Today I resigned from all of those things,” he told Chris Mason. “That all stops. I now have one job.” Mason pushed the question. “As far as I’m concerned,” Cameron replied, “that’s all dealt with and in the past.” And if he feels that way, who are the rest of us to quibble?
But to go back to Sunak’s gamble, was Cameron actually as good at stuff as all that? Leave aside that his main foreign policy goal at the start of 2016 was “Don’t leave the European Union”. Could it not be said that, looking back on his government, he went for easy decisions, not the right ones? That his rhetorical ambition achieved little more than short-term headlines? That he spent more time campaigning for change than delivering it? This was, of course, Sunak’s own analysis, one month and two resets ago. Now Cameron is being brought in as a saviour. People will try, but it’s hard to dress this up as a coherent strategy. Perhaps next week we’ll learn that HS2 is back on.
Meanwhile, the reshuffle was still ongoing. “Therese Coffey entered the famous black front door two hours ago and resigned,” Christopher Hope of GB News reported breathlessly. “She has not been seen since.” Had she been locked in the attic? Buried in the garden? Had Sunak handed her a Red Box of cash and told her she could keep it if she made it safely to Trafalgar Square? Was she even then being hunted through the Cabinet Office by ambitious junior ministers armed with crossbows?
You would have to have found an ambitious junior minister first. Under the radar, the story of the reshuffle was the number of lower-rung types announcing they were leaving the government. Some, like Neil O’Brien, were people who might have hoped one day to enter the Cabinet. Others, like Nick Gibb, are off at the next election.
Why leave your job now? There are plenty of reasons: to beat the rush of former ministers looking for outside jobs; because you think Sunak is making the last reshuffle he’ll deliver in government; perhaps you simply can’t face another year of the ministerial slog. What all these explanations have in common is an expectation that the Tories are heading for defeat.
Of course, they thought that at Helm’s Deep, too. Perhaps Dave really will ride to the rescue. Look to his coming at first light. Look to the East. He’s seen some terrific business opportunities out that way.
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