David Cameron's return can't hide the Conservatives' drift towards the hard right – Stewart McDonald
Political parties are funny things. Sometimes more like an orchid than a mass membership organisation, a political party needs constant care and attention to ensure its continued health and growth. David Cameron understood this; weeks after his election as leader of the Conservatives in 2005, he had party officials draw up what is now known as the “Conservative A-List” – a list of talented women, ethnic minorities, and other candidates that the party machine was to throw its weight behind in order to get them elected as Conservative MPs and detoxify what Michael Portillo had admitted was a “reactionary and unattractive” parliamentary party.
One of the many ironies of Cameron’s recent appointment as Foreign Secretary is that it has come about because each of his successors, while more than happy to take up his mantle when it comes to slashing and burning the British public realm, has failed in their duty to nurture a healthy and viable Conservative party. As a result of this neglect, Rishi Sunak has clearly cast his eye over the 350 Conservative MPs that sit behind him every week at Prime Minister's Questions and found each one of them too treacherous, too corrupt, too deceitful, too stupid, too mad, or simply too incompetent to do the job. On this, at least, the man has his finger on the nation’s pulse.
The ink was barely dry on Sunak’s self-congratulatory announcement that he had brought integrity and accountability back into government when the news broke. Cameron, a millionaire who signed off on brutal, socially and economically damaging cuts to welfare and public spending that would never affect him or his loved ones. Cameron, a Prime Minister who called the 2016 Brexit referendum then fled before he had to deal with the consequences of his folly. Cameron, a lobbyist who spent the pandemic years haranguing, wheedling and cajoling government officials and ministers to bail out a bank he worked for and held shares in. Cameron, a Foreign Secretary who will sit in the House of Lords away from the democratic scrutiny of elected MPs. Integrity and accountability are not the first words which leap into one’s mind when that man’s name is mentioned.
Cameron’s appointment is a curious choice in more ways than one. In James Cleverly, the Prime Minister had a politically astute and intellectually able Foreign Secretary who was only beginning to get a grip of his brief after a year in post and who, just last summer, publicly pleaded with the Prime Minister to keep him in post. Speaking to an audience at the Aspen Security Forum, Cleverly told them that he would have to be dragged out of the Foreign Office leaving “nail marks down the parquet flooring”.
But Cameron’s appointment is not about policy or long-term decision-making or good government. It is pure politics. Years of taking a laissez-faire approach to party management have seen the Conservatives slowly drift towards the lunatic fringes of the hard right – a shift given human form in Suella Braverman and her kamikaze forays into the culture war. Sunak has surely now woken up to this, confronted with the realisation that his party, once more, has reverted to its pre-Cameron “nasty party” form – and is haemorrhaging voters to Labour and Liberal Democrats as a result.
Bringing Cameron, the doyen of one-nation, socially liberal conservatism, is all about sending a signal to these would-be voters that the party is still the same one that they voted for in 2010 and 2015. But Sunak just doesn’t get it. Cameron didn’t improve the image of the Conservatives through soundbites, policy announcements, or well-chosen Cabinet announcements. He transformed it by fundamentally changing the make-up of the parliamentary party, bringing a new generation of talent, experience, and diverse perspectives into the House. Cameron rewired the entire building. Sunak has repainted the front door.
Sunak, parachuted into the safest of safe seats in 2015, often simply does not seem to understand what leading a political party entails. I sometimes wonder if he pictures himself as chief executive of the Conservative Party, LLP – as the leader of a firm that can be managed with spreadsheets and savvy board appointments. But a political party is not a business that can be managed from the top down: they are organisations which exist to mediate between the individual and the collective in vast modern societies, vehicles for citizens to be selected by their peers to represent them on a national level, and mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable.
The appointment of an unelected peer to one of the great offices of state runs contrary to all those principles. It might, however, be the last ministerial office where this – however unpalatable – is even imaginable. Foreign and security policy, and especially anything in the realm of geopolitics, is perhaps the last policy area to remain an elite sport, with a yawning gulf between the information available to the public and to government officials. That will not change any time soon. But as Keir Starmer has learned to his cost in the past few weeks, this discrepancy does not mean that foreign policy is exempt from democratic challenge. Political leaders forget that at their peril.
As public scrutiny increases in the run-up to next year’s general election, Sunak must surely know that the return of his party’s former leader will not stem its inevitable fall into electoral oblivion. But the Prime Minister’s desperate pre-election manoeuvres should serve as a reminder that the slow, discreet, and unglamorous business of party management and candidate selection is a job that takes years – not weeks. David Cameron should have told him that.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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