LONDON — As David Cameron heads to Washington this week for his first big speech back on the world stage, his bête noire Boris Johnson will be sat in a dingy room in west London.
Johnson is to give two days of televised testimony before Britain’s COVID-19 inquiry, answering a barrage of questions under oath about decisions he took while prime minister in 2020 and 2021 which — many believe — cost thousands of people their lives.
As Johnson battles to salvage his battered reputation, Cameron will be strutting through America in a ministerial motorcade, glad-handing Washington’s power players and preparing to address the Aspen Security Forum as U.K. foreign secretary.
It’s a stark symbol of just how quickly the political sands can shift.
Cameron had long been written out of the British political scene, famously retreating to a hut in his garden to write his memoirs after calling — and losing — the divisive Brexit referendum in 2016. Johnson — an old acquaintance from his school days — had fought on the opposite side, and his star rose rapidly after the referendum victory. As Cameron licked his wounds, Johnson became foreign secretary in 2016 and then prime minister — with the landslide majority Cameron also craved — three years later.
But with Johnson now long gone and Cameron handed a dramatic ministerial comeback — along with a seat in the House of Lords — in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle last month, the two men’s fate has come full circle.
And former colleagues say Cameron is making no secret of his delight at the turn of events, frequently texting associates to say how much he is enjoying the new gig.
Despite now having the run of the palatial Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office — known as the grandest building on Whitehall — Cameron has also been awarded two large private rooms in the House of Lords, displacing Conservative colleagues in the process.
Some friends believe he’s having more fun than when he was actually running the country.
“He has got the bits of the job he enjoyed, he has shed the bits he didn’t. It is the perfect semi-retirement job for him,” a former No. 10 adviser who worked for Cameron said. (The adviser was granted anonymity, like others in this article, to speak candidly about private interactions with the foreign secretary)
“All prime ministers like being on the world stage. It allows them to grapple with big issues,” a second former No. 10 adviser who worked closely with Cameron said.
Cameron’s closest political ally, his ex-Chancellor George Osborne, says his friend’s return will have fulfilled the “strong element of public service” in the ex-prime minister, which he claimed has “always been part of his DNA.”
“It’s like the sound of the trumpet. Back on … the political playing field, and serving your country. He’s doing it because above all he thinks he can make a difference,” Osborne said on a recent podcast.
Others are less impressed.
One Whitehall official, while acknowledging the diplomatic advantages of having a former PM in post, described Cameron’s appointment as “failing upward, writ large.”
Cameron’s peerage means MPs cannot quiz him in the House of Commons like other ministers, another fact which rankles with opponents.
“Once again Cameron is jetsetting around the globe with seemingly no accountability to the British public,” Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said.
“We have very little idea whom this unelected foreign secretary is meeting and what he is saying. Maybe if he spent as much time — or indeed any time at all — making himself available for scrutiny from MPs, we would understand exactly what his foreign policy priorities are.”
Back on the world stage
On his first visit to the U.S. since becoming foreign secretary on Wednesday, Cameron will meet key members of the Biden administration, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as Republican and Democratic Congressional figures in an effort to shore up support for Ukraine.
Cameron’s appointment has certainly made diplomats in foreign capitals sit up and take notice, if only because his is a familiar name in the hard-to-follow soap opera of British politics.
Even in the U.S., his appointment triggered some excitement. As one U.K. official put it, “Americans have a sort of respect for former office-bearers in a way that Brits don’t.”
An EU diplomat said that despite having “gambled” on the Brexit referendum, Cameron is still well thought of in Brussels.
Cameron will certainly feel at home, having relished life on the world stage as prime minister, according to multiple advisers who worked with him at the time.
“You get the idiosyncrasies of different leaders and he enjoyed that. He has a good sense of humor,” the second former adviser quoted above said. The aide recounted how a Nigerian president had once left a soap opera playing on TV throughout his meeting with the British prime minister. “[Cameron] came out laughing. He could roll with the weird and wonderful.”
Predictably, Cameron has slipped back easily into government — perhaps a little too easily, according to the Whitehall official quoted above who said he had to be reminded he needed clearance before texting friendly hellos to former acquaintances from foreign powers.
The same person said he was demanding fast, detailed briefings at a rate more associated with No. 10, and has sometimes sent papers back asking for a more creative approach. They pointed out his only previous job in government had been as prime minister, which influences his way of working.
Green with envy
The notoriously competitive Cameron also won’t be displeased by the reaction to his appointment by his political peers.
Arch-rival and former school frenemy Johnson, who was ousted from office in 2022 over his handling of various personal scandals, couldn’t help but mock Cameron’s return, describing it as “great news for retreads everywhere.”
Osborne, Cameron’s closest political friend, admitted to being “a little bit jealous, but in a good way,” after he returned.
“There’s a little bit of me that goes ‘I’d fancy being foreign secretary,’” Osborne admitted, before insisting: “But I’m very happy with what I’m doing with the rest of my life, and I think it probably keeps me sane.”
Even the man who appointed Cameron — Sunak — may start to envy Cameron’s ability to detach from the day-to-day management of a fractious Conservative Party, something he endured throughout his own premiership from 2010-2016.
Two government officials said Cameron was essentially “prime minister of foreign affairs,” leaving Sunak to fix his attention on a raft of nightmarish domestic problems in the run-up to the next election, which he is expected to lose.
“[Cameron] can really dedicate himself in a way he never could as PM, because you’re on the plane back and you’ve got to deal with Mark Pritchard and circus tent animals, or whatever else there is when you are prime minister,” a third former adviser said, referencing a furor over a Tory backbench rebellion on banning circus animals.
Life will certainly be different from the past seven years. Shortly after his appointment last month, Cameron told peers the Chippy Larder food project — where he volunteered for two years during his political retirement — would have to manage without him for a while.
“There’s an element of it being quite hard to replay that adrenaline rush [of being PM], the pace of what you do,” the second former adviser quoted above said, noting Cameron had quit before he was 50 and had been “at the peak of his abilities.”
“It’s a shot of redemption,” the third former adviser added. “He’s got another chance at it — and this one probably isn’t going to end in his failure.”
Jon Stone contributed reporting