7 ways David Cameron’s comeback could get awkward for Rishi Sunak

LONDON — David Cameron is back at the top of British politics. His boss Rishi Sunak might soon regret it.

Sunak shocked Westminster on Monday by picking Cameron — who quit as prime minister in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum — as his new foreign secretary, amid a wide-ranging government reshuffle aimed at turning around the ailing Conservative Party’s fortunes. Cameron will become a life member of the House of Lords to take on the job.

It means one of Britain’s best-known and most-experienced politicians is back in one of the most powerful jobs in the British government. But there are plenty of reasons the grand return could soon get awkward for Sunak and his party.

1) Sunak’s defined himself against Cameron

In the aftermath of Cameron’s appointment, some in Westminster were reminiscing about Rishi Sunak’s first conference speech as Tory leader.

In that speech — made all of five weeks ago — Sunak tried to pitch himself as the change candidate. In doing so, he distanced himself from what he described as a failed “30-year political status quo.” Given the Conservatives have been in government for the last 13 years, this was seen as a clear attempt from Sunak to distance himself from his predecessors.

“You either think this country needs to change, or you don’t,” Sunak told party activists in Blackpool. Appointing the guy who led Britain for a large chunk of those 13 years of Tory government sends an altogether different message.

2) They’re split over high-speed rail

That conference speech from Sunak also confirmed the rolling back of High Speed 2 — a long-promised rail line which Cameron announced to much fanfare back in 2013.

The PM said the pricey project represented the “ultimate example of the old consensus.” Cameron soon made it clear he disagreed, tweeting out a lengthy middle finger to his future boss.

In his equally lengthy statement following his appointment Monday, Cameron said that though he has “disagreed with some individual decisions” made by Sunak, it is clear to him the PM is “a strong and capable prime minister.”

3) Cameron built China ties in office

Plenty of Conservative MPs welcomed Cameron’s return to the political front line. But expect one particular group to give the move plenty of scrutiny.

As PM, Cameron famously heralded a “golden era” of U.K. relations with China. Cameron was keen to attract more Chinese investment to Britain, and even welcomed President Xi to the U.K. for a state visit in 2015, where the pair of leaders swilled pints and enjoyed fish and chips in the local pub.

That approach — and some of Cameron’s recent lobbying work in China — has been strongly criticized by the large bloc of China hawks in the Tory party. They’ve used their influence to press Cameron’s successors into more hawkish positions on China.

Sunak shocked Westminster on Monday by picking Cameron as his new foreign secretary | Carl Court/Getty Images

Though he has declined to follow Liz Truss in describing China as a “threat” to the U.K., Sunak used a speech last year to make clear the “golden era” relations between Britain and China is well and truly over. Cameron will have to follow that line when he engages with Beijing in his new foreign affairs role.

4) His appointment could reopen Brexit divides

The pro-Remain Cameron quit the day after he lost 2016’s Brexit referendum — a poll he allowed in order to call the bluff of Brexiteers in his party and settle the issue once and for all.

It didn’t quite work out that way, and footage of Cameron humming a tune as he walked back into Downing Street after announcing his resignation — and after helping to tee up years of political chaos in the U.K. — went viral.

Sunak himself campaigned for Brexit and Britain has now firmly left the EU. But while the current prime minister leads a Cabinet with both Remainers and Leavers at the table, many Tory MPs remain suspicious of any efforts to seek a closer relationship with Europe, and will be keeping a close eye on Cameron’s words.

5) Cameron faced major lobbying scrutiny

Beyond talking to a tree and retreating to a shed to write a book, Cameron’s post-premiership career is perhaps best known for his involvement with Greensill Capital — a now-collapsed finance group which bagged serious access to the British government.

After leaving government, Cameron took up post as a paid adviser to the firm. He pressed senior ministers and officials to include Greensill in a coronavirus lending scheme back in 2020.

Greensill folded in 2021, leaving thousands of jobs at risk, prompting an investigation from the U.K.’s financial watchdog, and raising serious questions about whether the system for stopping ex-ministers lobbying after office was up to scratch.

Cameron argued that he lobbied the government for the sake of the public good. He was also cleared of breaking any rules. But the row helped illuminate the often murky relationships between politicians and business, and the opposition Labour Party may be tempted to drag this one up again — especially after Sunak promised to lead a government with “integrity” and “accountability.”

6) Cameron is unelected

In order to give Cameron his new Cabinet role, Sunak had to offer the ex-PM a life peerage, meaning he can sit in Britain’s unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, for life.

The former prime minister will become a baron imminently and take his seat on the red benches. But that means he won’t face scrutiny from MPs in the House of Commons — where the main action happens in British politics — and he will be only be permitted to address his colleagues in the Lords.

Conservative MPs including the backbencher Michael Fabricant have already raised concerns about what this means for parliamentary scrutiny.

A general public that polling suggests would back a more democratic second chamber may have questions for Sunak.

7) The public view of him is … mixed

Sunak clearly values Cameron’s experience and character — but do Brits in general?

Polling conducted by Savanta in October on the relative favorability ratings of former Conservative leaders showed that just under a quarter of Brits have a positive view of Cameron. On the other hand, the polling showed that 45 percent have an unfavorable view.

Still, he’ll be in good company. Pollster YouGov’s popularity tracker shows Sunak himself is generally disliked by Brits.

As the prime minister seeks to overturn Labour’s big polling lead, those figures don’t necessarily paint Cameron as the game changer the embattled PM needs.