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Cameron has gone native at the Foreign Office

Typical. Just as I declare Tory Arabism to be dead, our new Foreign Secretary sets about trying to revive it.

David Cameron is clever enough to know that recognising a Palestinian state before the peace process has concluded would be an abrupt departure from long-standing British policy and provide succor to Hamas without alleviating Gaza’s suffering. Even if he was only telling a Conservative Middle East Council reception what they wanted to hear, it was shocking to hear him suggest it. As it was when he suggested Israel might be breaching international law if it fails to provide aid. 

Similarly, when he wrote an article last week urging Congress to pass funding for Ukraine, he would not have expected Marjorie Taylor Greene to tell him to ‘kiss her ass’. He can laugh off the criticism of a Congresswoman who has suggested 9/11 was a hoax and that Democrats dabble in Satanism. But he knows what it is like for a politician to cross the Atlantic, deliver a condescending message, and it backfires spectacularly. “Back of the queue” meets “I do not want us to show the weakness displayed against Hitler in the 1930s.”

Cameron subsequently claimed he didn’t want to “tell [our] American friends what to do”, which rather strips his article of its potency. Nevertheless, it was the latest sign that Cameron is a middle-aged man in a hurry, happier as Foreign Secretary than a pig in mud. He has visited Washington twice in four months. He has crisscrossed the Middle East and hobnobbed with Volodymyr Zelensky, and is now racking up the air miles conferencing in Munich, Rio, and New York. En route he’s even stopped off in the Falklands, in case Javier Milei gets ideas.

Sending Cameron to the Foreign Office made sense for Rishi Sunak. Whilst it meant tacitly admitting that he couldn’t think of a current Tory MP who was up to the job, it freed the Prime Minister to focus on electioneering by offloading the tedium of diplomacy onto his predecessor but three. Bored of tennis and lobbying, Cameron seems to be relishing the opportunity to swap Chipping Norton for the world stage.

Yet his appointment also raised questions. I don’t doubt that Cameron is experienced and eloquent enough to succeed in pointing at maps, glad-handing ambassadors, and munching on the odd Ferrero Rocher. But if I was picking a highlight from his premiership, it wouldn’t have been his foreign policy.

Libya, Ukraine, Brexit: the headlines of Cameron’s record are like a shopping list of recent disasters. If he had avoided airstrikes, shouted louder over Crimea, or driven a harder bargain with Angela Merkel, it’s not as if we wouldn’t have a migration crisis, a war in Ukraine, or spaffed three years in a national nervous breakdown. But they all ended ignominiously. That’s even before the Chinese elephant in the room – Cameron’s “golden era”.

Sunak has claimed that both China and the Foreign Secretary have changed since that halcyon pint in The Plough. Human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong, saber-rattling over Taiwan: the nature of Beijing’s regime is clearer than ever. When meeting his Chinese counterpart, Cameron focused on human rights issues and the sanctioning of British MPs rather than trade and investment. Another round with Xi Jingping is very much on hold.

The Prime Minister’s approach to China has been the best of any recent premier. Liz Truss’s attempts to speak loudly at Beijing whilst carrying a small stick were just as naïve as thinking a Leninist dictatorship could be a reliable ally. That Cameron seems to have signed up to his shift doesn’t detract from his foolishness in cozying up to Beijing in the first place – or in promoting their wares in Sri Lanka.

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised if he can effortlessly make the shift. He has done it before. Only three years separated his meeting with the Dalai Lama sending relations with Beijing into deep freeze and Xi making a state visit. The only consistent bit of Cameron’s worldview is its inconsistency.

As opposition leader Cameron declared he didn’t believe in dropping democracy from 40,000 feet. Within a year in office, he was bombing Gaddafi. He pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party and ended up leading the Remain campaign. He likened Gaza to a prison camp but declared himself a Prime Minister “whose belief in Israel is unbreakable” and ignored a Commons vote to recognise Palestine.

That returns us to the Foreign Secretary and the Middle East. Is Cameron’s latent ‘posh Arabism’ now re-emerging as the situation in Gaza becomes ever-bleaker? Or is the truth much more mundane: that Cameron is, and always has been, making it up as he goes along?

Over a decade ago,ConservativeHome attempted to discern a singular worldview for Cameron. We concluded that there wasn’t one. For all the speeches and articles, a ‘Cameron doctrine’ does not exist. He might have instincts – liberal institutions good, deaths of civilians bad – but the Foreign Secretary is fundamentally reactive: a creature of circumstances.

This maps onto his foreign policy record. Want to embarrass Tony Blair? Point out the folly of humanitarian intervention. Want to make a name for yourself on the world stage? Intervene in Libya. Want to burnish your liberal credentials? Meet the Dalai Lama. Want Beijing’s investment? This round’s on me, Xi. Want to get a cheer at a Conservative Friends of Israel dinner? Call yourself Israel’s number-one fan. Want to get a clap at a CMEC reception? Back unilateral recognition of Palestine. He was only being polite.

How then does Cameron know what to say, what to think, at any moment? Is it gut feeling? Or is it based on whatever is being whispered in his ear? He is a product of and a proponent of the Sensible Chap theory of politics: if sensible men are sensibly running sensible organisations, everything will work out sensibly. Britain has been governed this way for at least 300 years, but probably since the Romans.

But what happens when the Sensible Chaps are governing a world becoming increasingly insensible? Cameron was out of frontline politics for six and a half years before being sent to King Charles Street. Name recognition can’t compensate for the fact that he has been out of the game whilst the world has changed spectacularly. Cameron’s could only fall back on the immediate resources of the Foreign Office – the Mecca of Sensible Chaps.

The right often laments ‘Treasury Orthodoxy’: that institutional frugality that puts balanced budgets and value for money ahead of tax cuts for growth. It would do better to put the spotlight on the equally pernicious Foreign Office equivalent. Pro-Brussels, pro-Arab, and pro-similar chaps in similar institutions across the world. Treats populism as a dirty word, and nods vigorously at claims that Britain ‘punches above its weight’.

The problem with this worldview is that it is out of date. The Sensible Chaps failed. They failed to contain China’s rise or blunt Russia’s ambitions. Their tears didn’t stop Brexit. Recognising Palestine would mean bolstering Iran. The Special Relationship is dead. Britain is not the Greece to America’s Rome. We’re barely escaping being Carthage. We should stop lecturing the world on what to do and admit it all went wrong when King Canute died. As the world becomes more dangerous, trying to ‘punch above our weight’ can only court disaster. But we struggle to admit it, hooked on our own pomposity.

Becoming the Foreign Office’s mouthpiece is an unfortunate addition for Cameron to a premiership that looks increasingly respectable. Then again, it’s not as if it matters. Keir Starmer’s popularity in Munich shows world leaders know who they will be dealing with this time next year. Cameron’s job is to bat out time, prop up a crumbling world order, and make Sunak’s life a little easier before returning to his shed to finish the updated edition of his memoirs.

I would never descend to using Greene’s coarse language. But I can appreciate her sentiment.

About the author: 

William Atkinson is ConservativeHome’s Assistant Editor. He graduated from Oxford, where he studied History, in 2021.
He then worked as a teacher in North London before joining ConservativeHome in March 2022.
This article has been originally published on ConservativeHome website, on February 20, 2024.

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