The Return of the King


The return of David Cameron to front-line politics has elicited strong reactions from all areas of the political spectrum. On Sunday it was inconceivable that Cameron would be anything other than a former Prime Minister, travelling the lecture circuit and sitting on the board of numerous organisations while acting as a consultant for others. Elevation to a Knight of the Garter was almost inevitable. A life peerage was possible, but no former Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher has moved to the Upper House, indicating the end to that tradition.

There have since been catcalls from the Left about the Prime Minister’s choice, all completely ignoring the persistence of Peter Mandelson at the top of Labour politics, which also included ennoblement when Gordon Brown needed the Prince of Darkness back at the cabinet table as Business Secretary one month after the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008. While in the pay of the EU, Mandelson was subsequently a leading figure in the campaign to reverse the EU referendum result, and has been part of Sir Keir Starmer’s top team since 2021 when at the time it looked like Labour was about to collapse in on itself.

So Labour can hardly criticise Rishi Sunak for bringing back a Big Beast when they have been regularly serviced by a Backroom Boy for years.

Cameron led what has to be the best British government of the 21st century. It was a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband bet his party on this coalition falling apart before five years at a time when the life of a Parliament was fixed by statute rather than continuing at the whim of a Prime Minister. Cameron’s government successfully led the country out of the financial and fiscal holocaust left by Labour, whose civil war between 10 and 11 Downing Street led to confused priorities and unsustainable spending that had to be reined in lest the government lost confidence of the financial markets and found itself unable to borrow without punitive charges as governments around the world experienced debt crises during the credit crunch.

However there are now those who describe the return of Cameron as a retreat from the populist policies of the Prime Minister’s predecessors, notably Boris Johnson, a populism unleashed by the EU referendum and sustained by Boris’ media presence. This is to misunderstand the course of British politics since the mid-1990s. Boris Johnson has had one of the most scrutinised careers of any leading British politician. There have been numerous exposés written by his detractors all trying to depict him as being unfit for office. They all miss the point. The soaring success of New Labour, apart from being the default option for an electorate tired or irritated by eighteen years of Conservative governance, was due to its ability to manipulate media; this is why Peter Mandelson, a former television producer, was pivotal. Mandelson commoditised news and, assisted by his ever-present acolyte Alastair Campbell, threatened to withhold stories from media organisations if their journalists did not toe the line. It is telling that Mandelson’s ministerial ability was otherwise highly limited, having to resign due to financial scandals from the cabinet not once, but twice, despite him being the driving force behind attacking ‘Tory sleaze’ while in opposition. Boris Johnson simply rode this new political media landscape to high office. His television persona made him, of all Conservative politicians of the time, unassailable to New Labour attacks, while making him the most visible Conservative politician of his generation. Boris played Mandelson at his own game, and won big. Labour, after years of ignoring the electorate, had set itself up as a populist party after four successive defeats. All Boris did was to follow exactly the same game-plan.

But the thumping Conservative majority of 2019, in addition to the more modest victory of 2015, did not lead to the kind of conservatism experienced in the 1980s with a reversal of Labour policies. There is a reason for this. Conservatism is guided by the need to attain and hold power before all else. The Conservative Party is the world’s most successful vote-getting organisation in genuinely democratic countries in modern world history. Unlike Labour’s ideologically-informed policies that always risk falling foul of objective reality, the Conservative Party in office practises moderate reform and pragmatic governance, and has done so for almost two centuries. Moderation and pragmatism are major elements of the British character that are routinely ignored by Labour to its ongoing cost; excluding the Blair/Brown government, Labour has only been in office for 17 years since 1945. When The Sunday Times in 1979 described Margaret Thatcher’s new government as the “most radical in postwar history”, they were mistaken. The steps taken by Margaret Thatcher to liberalise the economy and excise socialism from its wealth-creating element were a pragmatic, rather than radical, response to the failing socialist corporate state as well as the increasingly destabilising rise in a union militancy that was trying to abolish profit in businesses through a campaign of legalised industrial sabotage. 

It is interesting that no-one has questioned why Churchill, on regaining power in 1951, did not set about dismantling the monolithic statist edifice he inherited from Attlee but instead kept going with it. At the time, moderation and pragmatism militated against reversing the wide-ranging changes wrought by Labour to the postwar British economy, and also may have been to a degree necessary to preserve national stability in a country bankrupted and devastated by six years of total war. 

Despite precarious economics, Great Britain (Northern Ireland, balkanised as it is, is another story) had the most stable progress of any major European country in the postwar era. While some may point to West Germany as worthy of emulation, it has to be remembered that Germany as a whole was divided, had outlawed its communist party, and was under military occupation in one form or other for half-a-century after 1945. For the size of its economy, Germany had almost zero presence on the global political stage for obvious reasons, and thus was as able as, say, Luxembourg or Monaco, to concentrate on internal development. Germany had the luxury of not needing to buy aircraft carriers and Vulcan bombers, or maintain bases overseas.

The same moderation and pragmatism informed Cameron on gaining power in 2010, not least because of the need for coalition. New Labour had profoundly changed the political landscape as much as Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee had done, and so putting the gears into reverse was never going to be an option. It is noteworthy that Tony Blair did not undo the major elements of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms despite enjoying a landslide majority, to the outrage of the left wing of his party. Rather than renationalising businesses and abolishing laws regulating trades union activity, Blair concentrated on social reforms but also assisting the ‘long march into the institutions’ of the Left, such as appointing former leading member of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency Keir Starmer to the post of Director of Public Prosecutions. The reason so many public bodies are excessively relaxed about wokeist incursions into public life, such as allowing sexually-active middle-aged men into women’s changing rooms, stems from Blair’s activities over two decades ago.

So the dumping of Suella Braverman and re-elevation of David Cameron (Lord Cameron of Witney? Chipping Norton?) has to be seen in the context of this consistent thread of a conservatism of moderate reform and pragmatic governance. While Mrs Braverman was correct in her quite frank assessment of the ongoing mass marches protesting again Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself against genocidal Islamist terrorism, it is possible that her comments may have been prompted because she was aware she was on the way out and wanted to make her mark. In other words, she was playing politics, which she was entirely entitled to do. It may also have been the case that it was her outspoken words that drove the Metropolitan Police and protest organisers to absolutely ensure that there would be no disruption of the marking of Remembrance in Whitehall. While impossible to prove a negative or to base an argument on something that did not happen, Mrs Braverman has performed a public service, but possibly at the cost of her cabinet career.

So the return of Cameron is not a retreat from populism, as this populism was more rhetorical than practical. We are still governed by the Human Rights Act. The TV Licence Fee has not been abolished. Immigration is still sky-high, both legal and illegal. The UK remains a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and has to abide by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights which stops us from curbing illegal immigration. All we have done is to leave the EU at a time when the EU’s inwards-looking policies clashed with a new paradigm of developing new global trade partnerships. The EU, being an ideological entity, also had shown itself, rather like Labour, to be utterly incapable of meaningful reform in the face of objective reality.

Bringing Cameron back may not save Rishi Sunak from the electorate, and rather signals to Conservative MPs that none of them had the requisite talent needed for the position of Foreign Secretary. But that’s politics. Cameron is a global statesman, and recent events dictate that a global statesman with experience is needed in the post. That is a pragmatic response to a burgeoning world crisis. Conservative MPs should not be so over-ambitious as to not recognise this.

Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.