Not exactly Lord Castlereagh. Valdrin Xhemaj/Pool/Getty Images

March 23, 2024   5 mins

It’s amazing how little it takes. After a premiership marked by foreign-policy failure — and a political afterlife sullied by profiteering — here we are, only four months since his return as Foreign Secretary, and David Cameron is being talked about as though he were Lord Castlereagh reincarnate, master of King Charles Street and the great art of diplomacy.

In one sense, it is dispiritingly obvious why Cameron is now being seen in such a positive light: the calibre of those around him. In comparison with much of the rest of the Cabinet, yes, Cameron does suddenly appear bigger. Here is a man able to walk and talk fluently into a camera saying reasonable-sounding things with confidence. And with it comes the swooning from those who wished he had never left in the first place.

What is undoubtedly true is that Cameron has succeeded in his time as Foreign Secretary, shifting Britain’s tone on the war in Gaza, almost immediately upon appointment in November 2023, from that of unconditional ally to increasingly-concerned critic. In doing so, according to his supporters at least, he has played a significant role clearing a path for the United States under Anthony Blinken to follow. Domestically, his positioning has also had the effect of making Keir Starmer seem shifty and slow — which is more than any other Cabinet minister has achieved.

“Cameron’s entire premiership was littered with foreign policy catastrophes.”

Yet, let us step back for a second. This time last year, Cameron was in the United Arab Emirates teaching a course on “Practising Politics and Government in the Age of Disruption” at New York University Abu Dhabi. The idea of the programme, it seems, was how to take “long term” decisions when the world is in tumult. “One of the questions in my course,” Cameron wrote in the country’s state-owned paper, The National, was “whether states and governments are capable of long-term thinking and delivering major projects that can transform their nation’s prospects”. On this score, his host country stood out. “There is little doubt that when it comes to the UAE, the answer is a solid ‘yes’,” Cameron added glowingly. Eeesh.

This was Mr Cameron, a mere private citizen, before returning via the House of Lords for a final flourish at the top table of British politics. But this does give us the perfect opportunity to judge him by his own standards. Is his appointment evidence of the kind of “long-term thinking” that might transform a nation’s prospects, or, alternatively, exactly the kind of short-termism that marked the age of disruption?

Surely, it makes no sense that James Cleverly, who was doing a perfectly good job in the Foreign Office, was shunted over to the Home Office to learn yet another brief with almost no time to implement it. Cleverly, unlike Cameron, has a future in democratic politics and so has at least some marginal incentive to think of the long-term good of the country. Cameron’s incentives, in contrast, are entirely short term. As Foreign Secretary, he has a year — at most — to make as significant an impact as possible. Then he will be gone, almost certain never to return to frontline politics.

Cameron is running what is in effect a one-year foreign office. His policy, as such, has been to set down markers with eye-catching interventions that will shape events and, as a bonus, create a legacy for himself. Is this a foreign policy for the long term, advancing Britain’s core strategic interests? Take, for example, his warning, last month, to Republicans in Washington not to “appease” Russia. It certainly caught people’s attention: “Cameron drops all diplomatic niceties,” read one headline in the American press, later posted out by the British Embassy in Washington. “He’s getting a lot done,” ran a rather prosaic headline in The Guardian, reflecting on his first 100 days.

But while such an intervention might have nicely burnished the Foreign Secretary’s personal creds, it did little for British influence in Washington. And that’s because Cameron does not have to think about a future relationship with Donald Trump or a majority Republican Senate. He can just say what he thinks is right for now.

As a result, there is, I am told, frustration with Cameron among some foreign embassies. Only interested in the here and now, he isn’t inclined to dedicate time to the issues which will be around long after he’s gone. We shouldn’t really be surprised. Cameron is only doing in the Foreign Office what he has always done, appealing to the blob of moderate conservative and liberal opinion in a way that looks and sounds reasonable but dissolves under the glare of long-term scrutiny.

As Prime Minister, Cameron was also fond of “candid” foreign-policy declarations that rarely lasted. On his first big trip after winning power, Cameron lambasted the EU for blocking Turkish membership. “When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a Nato ally,” Cameron declared, “it makes me angry that your progress towards EU membership can be frustrated in the way it has been.” Six years later, attempting to dismiss concerns about future Turkish immigration, Cameron said the country would not become a member “until the year 3000”.

But then, Cameron’s entire premiership was littered with foreign policy catastrophes caused by muddled strategic thinking and short-term calculations, from the disaster of Libya to the failure of Syria and, of course, the abject refusal to prepare for the prospect of defeat in the Brexit referendum.

One government minister told me the problem today wasn’t necessarily that he was wrong to change the British government’s tone on Gaza or the substance of what he said to American Senators on Ukraine, but that his conduct suited his interests far more than Britain’s. “He is pursuing standard Foreign Office policy,” the minister said. “That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But we have to see this for what it is — a vanity trip.”

Even the former PM’s closest supporters admit that Cameron’s return to government came with an eye on his reputation which had been dragged through the mud by Brexit and the Greensill affair. As one friend put it to me, the very fact that he was seen to be having a successful time as Foreign Secretary meant he was less likely to have to return to the UAE for the big money because now he could expect more traditional opportunities to open up in big British or American firms.

Others argue that Cameron has made decisions that will stand the test of time, creating a diplomatic space from which a future Labour government will benefit, particularly over Gaza. And perhaps from his seat in the Lords, Cameron will use his rehabilitation for political gain, rather than financial, in the inevitable fight for control of the Conservative Party that will follow the next election. But should we count on that? “It’s about rehabilitating his reputation,” as one Cabinet critic put it to me. “It’s about him and his future, not ours.”

The irony is surely not lost on any of us that — at least in Cameron’s telling — the UAE has such transformative rulers committed to the long-term interests of their country, while here in Britain we have the Lord of Chipping Norton.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.