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Artillery Row

Leaving the man cave

What drew David Cameron back to politics?

A ringtone explodes in a man cave in Cornwall. A hand leaves the remote control, reaches off the side of the recliner and picks up the phone. As Netflix recedes in a background burble, the man takes the call.

“Ah, Rishi. I’ve been expecting you.”

For me, the most interesting question about the appointment of David Cameron is why on Earth he has accepted. Whether it will be good for the Conservatives is as irrelevant a question as whether it would be good for a football team to bring on a substitute goalkeeper when they are 5-0 behind. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What difference can it make? 

Whether he will be good in his position is somewhat more intriguing — but only in the sense that one glass of water is more intriguing than another. Yes, it might sparkle a bit — but it’s still a glass of water. Sure, as Chris Mason says, Cameron is “well-connected on the international stage”. But there is being well-connected and there is being respected. Cameron is best known for losing the Brexit referendum and his most important foreign policy decision concerned the ultimately disastrous conflict in Libya. It’s hard to believe that Russian and Chinese diplomats will be quaking in their boots.

Yet why has Cameron accepted? “I believe in public service,” he tells us. I’m not going to be so cynical as to say he doesn’t. That would be unfair to a man I’ve never met or spoken to. Perhaps there is a dutiful corner of his soul that was stirred when Rishi Sunak beckoned him out of retirement. 

But pure motivations in politics are as rare as pure thoughts in a strip club. What stirred his ambitions, and his ego, and his self-interest? 

This is the domain of speculation, of course, but I think the most plausible hypothesis is that while he has been skulking in unheralded consultancy positions — not even enjoying the influential, lucrative globe-hopping antics of a Tony Blair — his political failure has been gnawing at his soul. He looks in the mirror and he sees a man that the 2010s, never mind the 2020s, forgot.

Cameron was the man for whom success had always come relatively easily. A man who passed through Eton, and through Oxford, and who found himself contesting elections against Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband — the electoral equivalent of boxing two out of shape grandmas. A charmed life! Until, of course, it wasn’t.

But here comes the call of destiny again. Another shot at power! An opportunity to make things right. A chance to rip up the ending of David Cameron: The Biography — if anyone was bothering to write it — and turn the story round.

Where does he see it finishing? He must know that the Tories have little chance of staying in government beyond the next election. He must know, too, that he’s likely to outshine the charisma vacuum in Number 10. Say what you like about DC but his puppyish sincerity is more convincing than Sunak’s “line manager in a local telemarketing firm” routine. 

According to many — most recently Rory Stewart in The Edge of Politics — he also has a ruthless core behind his achingly earnest appearance. Does he really want nothing more than a depressing year of talks with Israeli and Ukrainian officials or does he want to ascend through the ranks again — to replace Sunak and maybe — just maybe — to return to Downing Street? God knows we hear enough people pining for the early years of the 2010s — for Those Olympics and for That Arab Spring. 

Perhaps Cameron thinks we want to party like it’s 2012.

Rank folly, if so. It would be a truism to say that we do not live in 2012 — but there is a sense in which we did not even live in 2012 at the time. The world that many people thought they lived in was much darker than it seemed. 2012 was the year of the Olympics, but it was also the year that the grooming gangs scandal breached the surface of the news. The optimism of the Arab Spring had yet to fade, but it was also the year of Benghazi and the escalation of the Syrian Civil War. Cameronian stability barely existed — and now it is nothing more than fading memory of a delusion.

It seems likely, then, that Cameron’s return will be an eccentric coda to his legacy and not a triumphant conclusion. 

Keep the lights on in the man cave, Dave.

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