Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Lording it over us

Cameron may not be a welcome sight, but we should celebrate the return of peers to the cabinet

Artillery Row

It’s November now, so the clocks have gone back. In Westminster, they have gone back to the 2010s. David Cameron (remember him?) has returned to government, appointed Foreign Secretary and raised to the peerage.

The prospect of a Foreign Secretary sitting on the red benches of the Upper House has caused more than a few bien-pensant eyebrows to be raised. Plenty of people will see this as an anachronism worse than a mere return to the personnel of the 2010s.

It is a firm constitutional convention that ministers should be members of the legislature (whilst they needn’t be an MP or a peer at the moment of their appointment, a winnable by-election or a peerage must be quickly forthcoming). However, there is no solid convention that cabinet ministers must always be an MP, sitting in the House of Commons. As recently as the Brown government, Peter Mandelson was brought back into government as the Business Secretary, First Secretary of State and Lord President of the Council, by means of a life peerage.

Whilst 2008 may feel like another era, Mandelson’s appointment was constitutionally yesterday. The basic principle is clear: it is perfectly proper for a government (happily, of either major party) to bring an experienced politician back into a senior cabinet position by means of a peerage.

Indeed, given the lacklustre quality of current MPs, not least in a Tory party which rid itself of a decent number of senior legislators during the trench warfare of Brexit, this is a Prime Ministerial power we should be glad to see employed. More premiers should consider bringing much needed talent to the Cabinet table by means of a barony or two.

Given he is very likely to soon be leading the first centre-left government in more than a decade, Sir Keir Starmer could do a lot worse than to jot down the names of a few elder statesmen of the Labour Party who might look good in ermine.

No MP has an electoral mandate, except for a particular local constituency

The basic constitutional mechanism by which His Majesty’s Government enjoys democratic legitimacy regrettably needs restating. The government receives its legal legitimacy by the King’s imprimatur, and its democratic mandate from the confidence of the House of Commons. The Commons is the mediating link between the government and the electorate. Its mandate is collective: it applies to the government as a whole. It is immaterial that a few individual members of a particular Ministry are peers. The government stands or falls together.

Indeed, it is worth noting that the individual mandate of any MP is not national at all. No MP as an individual has an electoral mandate, except as the representative for a particular local constituency.

Of course, most of the criticisms of the Cameron appointment are a little more sophisticated than this. The slightly stronger complaint is that the Foreign Secretary, a great officer of state, should be directly subject to scrutiny on the floor of the House of Commons.

The last Foreign Secretary to sit in the Lords was Lord Carrington, who served in the Thatcher government (resigning in April 1982 in connection with the Falklands War). Carrington had previously sat on the red benches as Energy Secretary, Defence Secretary and as First Lord of the Admiralty. In all of these positions he was, of course, subject to scrutiny from the opposing benches.

The newly elevated Lord Cameron will likewise be subject to questioning in the House of Lords. Again, with one eye on the quality of legislators and debate in the House of Commons, it is tempting to suspect that an experienced Upper House of experts might prove to be rather more incisive in its scrutiny.

The flexibility of Britain’s traditional constitution also provides for additional means of questioning Lord Cameron. The use of select committees has significantly expanded in the decades since peers routinely held high office. It would be a positive development if Lord Cameron were regularly called to account for government policy before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Likewise, given the great control that each House of Parliament has over its own affairs, it hardly seems impossible that provision should be made for the House of Commons to invite or summon a peer to answer questions from the bar of the House.

There is, however, a deeper principle which must inform these discussions. Genuine cabinet government, much weakened in the last few decades, ought to be reasserted to deal with this particular situation. Whilst a junior FCDO minister would suffice to answer small-scale technical questions about the government’s foreign policy, major decisions should have been taken in cabinet. The Foreign Office is not being bequeathed to Lord Cameron as a private fiefdom. Indeed, on truly major decisions, where it is most vital that HM Loyal Opposition should ask uncomfortable questions of HM Government, the Prime Minister should be able to answer for his own cabinet’s foreign policy.

On all contentious international issues of truly significant import — Ukraine, China, strife in the Holy Land — Mr Sunak should be capable of accounting for his government’s policy in the Commons, just as the Lord Cameron answers similar questions in the Lords.

It is hard not to see some objections to Cameron’s appointment — from Chris Bryant MP, for example — as unserious partisan posturing, which cheapen more authentic attempts to defend the rights and privileges of the House of Commons.

David Cameron has not had the Midas touch on foreign affairs

The greater concern around Cameron’s appointment ought not to involve the hand wringing of doctrinaire constitutional progressives, but rather serious questions about his foreign policy pedigree.

David Cameron has not historically had the Midas touch on foreign affairs. His poor handling of European policy abroad and domestically destroyed his own premiership. Intervention in Libya may have been morally justified — the Gaddafi régime really did seem to be on the verge of committing grave atrocities against civilians in Benghazi — but was so badly handled that the Libyan state collapsed, turning a minimally stable Mediterranean country into an Islamist-infested, slave-trading hellscape riven by a long and brutal civil war. His “Golden Era” China policy now seems guilelessly over-optimistic. The Spectator was already asking yesterday afternoon whether Cameron had been an “useful idiot” for the Chinese Communist Party.

The new Foreign Secretary certainly has a wealth of experience which could prove very useful to a faltering, beleaguered government. Britain, whose global reputation has recently been so battered, could do with a well-known international figure to represent the nation abroad. All of this is dependent upon the said elder statesman demonstrating that he has learned from past mistakes, however.

Lord Cameron’s return to high office is not a constitutional aberration, but rather the British system working as it should to allow a Prime Minister to bring an elder statesman back into government. There is plenty of scope in the Westminster model for the new Foreign Secretary to be closely questioned, by political friend and foe alike. This is not merely a possibility, but a necessity. He already has plenty of questions to answer.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover