David Cameron: Bruised by Brexit, lambasted for lobbying, and independence referendum instigator - former Prime Minister returns under Rishi Sunak reshuffle
When David Cameron departed Number 10 following the Brexit referendum in 2016, he left behind a broken Britain, divided not only by the divisive EU referendum, but also by the 2014 independence referendum.
Seven years later, the former prime minister has returned to the political frontline and to a Conservative party breaking apart at the seams ahead of what appears likely to be a historic defeat at the next general election.
It is a remarkable return from the fringes of public life, and a highly unexpected one.
Tory reformer and election winner
Cameron was an unlikely victor in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest, called after the resignation of Michael Howard following the party’s defeat in that year’s general election.
Up against the favourite, David Davis, the later disgraced Liam Fox and the pro-European Ken Clarke, a rousing conference speech swung the contest in his direction.
However, it was not until the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008, the declining popularity of Gordon Brown, and a boom in popularity for the Liberal Democrats that the soon-to-be prime minister looked like he may get the keys to Number 10.
Alongside his Chancellor, George Osborne, and with the blessing of his coalition partners, Cameron embarked on a generation-defining programme of austerity, built on the back of accusations of Labour profligacy.
He abolished the 50p top rate of tax and faced the challenge of claiming “we’re all in it together” as the axe fell on public services and the welfare state.
Attempts to create the “Big Society”, which pushed volunteerism, localism and charity work, fell flat. Commitments to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands were repeatedly missed.
Even the push for the legalisation for same-sex marriage, passed in the House of Commons despite more Tory MPs voting against it than for it, demonstrated the political fault-lines within his party.
These considerable issues and the rebellious nature of a difficult five years of coalition government, however, set in motion the forces that led to Cameron’s biggest failure. Brexit.
Faced with internal division on Europe and a new force in Nigel Farage’s UKIP, the temptation to hold a generation-defining vote on Britain’s place in the European context proved too strong.
The promise of an EU referendum following a Conservative victory at the 2015 general election helped propel the prime minister back into power, aided by a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote and an electorate left unconvinced by Labour’s Ed Miliband.
Cameron had also taken a similar political risk during his first five years in Downing Street, one that did – just – pay off.
He is the first, and so far last, prime minister to accept the legitimacy from the SNP of demands for a Scottish independence referendum.
With Alex Salmond’s party and the wider independence movement far from the 60 per cent support politicians today view as a catalyst for a second poll, the risk and reward from granting such a vote following the SNP’s 2011 majority was viewed as one worth taking.
Better Together eventually prevailed, with the help of an Cameron-requested intervention from the Queen, but the referendum changed the face of Scottish politics and it was a much tighter result than anticipated.
Perhaps emboldened by that experience rather than suitably forewarned, the decision to hold a Brexit referendum proved Cameron’s downfall.
The political debate frayed around the edges, with old allies such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove backing what they saw as their route to power. Project Fear, as the Remain side’s campaign was nicknamed, fell flat, much like it had during the 2014 independence referendum.
Brexit also proved an outlet for those angry at being left behind by austerity and at immigration, and became a breeding ground for British populism.
The defeat in 2016, a shock to a complacent establishment, secured Cameron’s exit.
Not willing nor capable of taking forward an irreparably divided Conservative party, he exited stage left, pursued by the bears of his own making.
Years in the political wilderness followed as Britain ate itself over what constituted a true Brexit.
As many former prime ministers do, his network across the world provided Cameron with ample opportunity to make money in the world of consulting.
Despite keeping a low profile, the former Conservative leader ended up implicated in the country’s worst lobbying scandal in decades.
In 2018, Cameron was hired as a adviser to financial services company Greensill Capital, a financial services business that focused on supply chain finance run by businessman Lex Greensill.
Greensill, which lent millions to steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, collapsed into insolvency in 2021, increasing the focus on the business.
Cameron was reported to have earned $1m [£820,000] from the position, which required around 25 days of work a year.
His links with those in government, however, soon came in handy, with Cameron lobbying to change the rules around Covid corporate financing, as well as directly lobbying the-then Chancellor and now Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, via text.
The BBC alleged Cameron had earned around £7m from his salary working for Greensill, and through selling shares.
The revelations led to multiple inquiries into the matter, including by the Cabinet Office and the lobbying register.
MPs found Cameron had erred by the “use of less formal means to lobby Government”, adding it “showed a significant lack of judgement on his part”, but concluded no rules were broken.
Cameron becomes the first former prime minister to serve in a successor’s Cabinet since Alec Douglas-Home was appointed foreign secretary in 1970, and will be elevated to the House of Lords.
In doing so, he becomes the first foreign secretary from the Lords since Lord Carrington, who served between 1979 to 1982 under Margaret Thatcher.
Tory insiders say the move allows Rishi Sunak to focus on domestic policy, but is not without its risks.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.