Oh Lord! ‘Call-me-Dave’ is back, Dallas-style

Meme by Sadie Parker

Rishi Sunak’s long-anticipated reshuffle was less significant for its scale than for its surprises. The news broke at 8.35am: Suella Braverman had been sacked. It later emerged there would not be the customary exchange of letters, where the outgoing minister says it has been the honour of their life to serve and the prime minister then thanks them for their service, listing their achievements. Ominously, Braverman, possibly the most incompetent and most hated Home Secretary of all time, later announced, “I will have more to say in due course…”

For days the public and press had been howling at the prime minister that he was weak, weak, weak, for keeping Braverman on after her latest outrage of publishing an article in The Times on 8 November .The piece did not contain the corrections Downing Street had ordered her to make. As a consequence, she was guilty of breaking the ministerial code (yet again) and making a nonsense of cabinet collective responsibility. Earlier that day she and Rishi Sunak had been pictured sitting next to each other during PMQs, with Sunak seemingly straining every sinew to put as much space between them as possible.

In the article, Braverman claimed the police were biased, “playing favourites”, giving some protesters preferential treatment. She caused offence when she likened protests for a ceasefire in Palestine (which she doubled-down on labelling as “pro-Hamas terrorist” and “hate marches”) to sectarian marches in Northern Ireland. It was breathtaking political ignorance to make this reference to protestant unionists who have been key allies to the conservative right over Brexit. Her aim was to get the peace march cancelled, a disgraceful instance of anti-democratic meddling by a Home Secretary.

As it was, Braverman’s repeated lie that a march with a route that was taking it nowhere near the Cenotaph would somehow imperil the Cenotaph succeeded in arousing the far-right and football “fans” of the hooligan persuasion. As many as 2,000 men, some of them high on drugs, and others already inebriated by mid-morning, descended on the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. The media over-politely referred to them as counter-protestors, but although some wore poppies, there was not a placard amongst them. They were without exception male, mostly dressed in black, and some had swastika tattoos. While the two-minute silence was observed without incident, at 11.11 am, Suella’s “Proud Boys” flash mob then stormed the Cenotaph and attacked the police.

Suella Braverman over-played her hand and had to go…

Armistice Day

To see the Cenotaph desecrated in this way on Armistice Day was profoundly distasteful, especially for those of us whose ancestors fought for this country in World War I and II, or in any other conflict for that matter. Unsurprisingly, calls mounted for Braverman’s sacking, with even a few Tory MPs joining the chorus of disapproval of the Home Secretary’s inflammatory statements.

Now for the most surprising part of Sunak’s reshuffle. Braverman was sacked over the phone at around 8 am that morning. A little while later, David Cameron was seen making the walk up to the door of N°10 Downing Street. On Reshuffle Day, that could only mean one thing: he was back in government.

Speculation was rife. He was likely doing a Bobby Ewing, and coming back from political death Dallas-style, probably as foreign secretary, a role he had publicly yearned for in 2018. Was the old Etonian and Bullingdon Club Boy who had inflicted austerity on the nation, lit the blue touchpaper for Brexit and then walked away from the consequences, and become the focal point for the most serious lobbying scandal in a decade worthy of this shot at redemption?

By 10.00 am it was confirmed that David “call me Dave” Cameron was indeed to become our next foreign secretary, the ninth since the Tories first came to power under Cameron himself in 2010. Sunak was using the time-honoured tradition of making a non-elected individual a Lord to get them into government. Boris Johnson had availed himself of this device in 2020 to elevate Zac Goldsmith, rejected as MP for Richmond Park in the 2019 general election, and again in 2022, to appoint Christopher Bellamy KC to replace Lord Wolfson as a junior justice minister after the latter resigned over Johnson’s “Partygate” behaviour. However, we have to go back to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to find a Lord serving as foreign secretary, when she appointed hereditary peer Lord Carrington to that post in 1979, and to Edward Heath appointing a former prime minister now a peer to that role in 1970 when he asked Alec Douglas-Home to serve.

A weakening of scrutiny of government at a time of major foreign conflicts

Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was foaming at the mouth. Hoyle is an odd fish to most of us due to his obsession with preventing MPs from accusing those who lie to the House of Commons of being liars, while seemingly turning a blind eye to even the most egregious of lies spouted at the dispatch box. However, he has been assiduous in ordering ministers to make significant policy announcements in parliament rather than to the media so that they can be properly scrutinised. That’s not possible if a minister is a Lord, as MPs can’t summon a Lord to the Commons.

David Cameron had barely been announced as foreign secretary before Hoyle was rightfully highlighting the weakening of parliamentary scrutiny this would entail. His principal argument is that it is unacceptable for MPs not to be able to call the foreign secretary to account directly, especially with the country on the fringes of two major conflicts.

The UK is supplying Ukraine with equipment and training in its fight against the Russian invasion, while continuing to back Israel’s right to self-defence against Hamas terrorists and to rescue hostages taken during the October 7 attack. The latter is particularly controversial, given the rhetoric coming from Israel’s government and its military actions increasingly looking like a plot to annihilate Gaza.

Government sources tried to reassure the Speaker that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could still be effectively scrutinised. Junior ministers would be available to make statements in the House of Commons and answer urgent questions; MPs could submit written questions to Lord “Call-me-Dave”, and he would appear in person before relevant parliamentary select committees. If the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HoLAC) approved Cameron’s peerage, rail as he might, Hoyle would have no choice but to accept the situation.

House of Lords Vetting

Some speculated that it would never come to this, given HoLAC was unlikely to ever approve David Cameron as a peer. After all, the inquiry into the Greensill lobbying scandal found that he had shown “a significant lack of judgement” when he tried to get what amounted to a glorified payday loan company funding from the UK’s coronavirus business support scheme.

As it happens, despite dozens of texts to then-chancellor Rishi Sunak and other Tory ministers (and even to Michael Gove with whom Cameron hadn’t been on speaking terms since the Brexit referendum), call-me-Dave didn’t secure any funding. He stood to gain £70m if Greensill was floated on the stock exchange, but it collapsed in 2021 at a still unknown final cost to the British taxpayer of somewhere between £5-10bn.

That was the second surprise of the morning: the announcement of his appointment as foreign secretary stated, “His Majesty has also been pleased to confer the dignity of a Barony of the United Kingdom for life upon David Cameron.” In other words, it was a done deal! Cameron had passed HoLAC vetting. Possibly the verdict of the Treasury report into Greensill essentially being that Cameron was “foolish but broke no rules” was sufficient to cover HoLAC’s blushes. The fact that the report had gone on to comment that the findings were more a reflection on the inadequacy of the rules rather than the probity of Cameron’s behaviour was neither here nor there…

Arise David Cameron, Lord of Toller Porcorum?

Could HoLAC have possibly approved a peerage and the King confirmed it in the two hours between Braverman’s sacking and Cameron’s ennoblement? Of course not! Call-me-Dave revealed at his first team meeting that Sunak had contacted him on Wednesday, 8 November – yes, the date of Braverman’s ill-considered article in The Times, her refusal to accept N°10’s edits, and Sunak’s “get me out of here” body language seated next to Braverman in PMQs. This shows two things: when “Leaky Sue” Braverman is out of the loop, N°10 doesn’t leak and there is no political feud that cannot be set aside when personal gain and/or interest is in the balance.

Just a month ago, Sunak and Cameron rubbished each other. Sunak did it less overtly, using his conference speech to distance himself from the failures of the past 30 years, 17 years of which have been under Tory governments, including David Cameron’s. Sunak presented himself as the change candidate. Part of that change was to axe the northern leg of HS2, Britain’s high-speed railway. Cameron’s response was less subtle. He publicly denounced Sunak’s decision as the “wrong one”, saying that a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” had been lost. But you’d never know that there had ever been such a huge disagreement from the chummy display they put on for the cameras after the announcement of his appointment.

We don’t yet know of what Cameron is to be Lord. His third home is in Cornwall, so his barony may have a Cornish flavour. Or sticking with a South-West theme, he could become Lord of Toller Porcorum, a Dorset village whose name means ‘river of the pigs’. That hits the mark in more ways than one for this new Tory Lord.

Public bafflement at Cameron’s return

The public reaction to giving Call-me-Dave a new lease of political life as Come-back Dave has been mixed. Comparisons to Bobby Ewing raised a laugh, but on a more serious note, a range of different groups have good reason to dislike him:

  • Labour voters (and anyone who isn’t rich): for the ravages of austerity.
  • LibDem voters: because he shafted them.
  • Scottish voters: for broken 2014 indy-ref promises.
  • English voters: for making a pig’s ear out of “English Votes for English Laws”.
  • Remainers: because of disastrous Tory Brexit, and the  ongoing harm to the country.
  • Leavers: not only because he opposed Brexit, but also for the further indignity of having been proved right on that score.

And so on… However, compared to most cabinet ministers since 2016, Cameron is a political heavyweight. Urbane, articulate, and on top of his brief. After the slide of the Tory Party into Trumpist über-right crank territory, his appointment appears to signal a shift towards more moderate, One Nation Toryism. “There’s a grown-up back in government,” cheered those happy to see him back at the Tory top table.

Rishi Sunak: hold my Mexican Coke…

As the day wore on, and only one other secretary of state was sacked (Thérèse Coffey, DEFRA) and another shuffled into her place (Steve Barclay, from Health and Social Care), it looked as if the fireworks were over. But Sunak had one more surprise up his sleeve: the return to Cabinet of Esther McVey, an MP known for her glorious head of hair, air-headedness, and wasting taxpayers’ money on personal photographers. She has a similar political philosophy to Braverman, without the performative cruelty. Officially, she is a minister without portfolio, but has been dubbed “minister of common sense” and will be the torch-bearer of anti-wokism. Will that be enough to stop an avalanche of letters of no confidence in Rishi Sunak going into the 1922 Committee from Braverman’s supporters? Watch this space for more Dallas-style Tory shenanigans.