David Cameron is outshining his peers in his comeback as Britain's top diplomat

The former PM is showing statesmanship and skill that is otherwise missing in Whitehall these days

David Cameron has drastically changed Britain's position on Israel's Gaza war in short order. PA
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The face of Jose Manuel Barroso stared from the side of the stage as David Cameron spoke.

Mr Barroso, a former president of the European Commission, would have been forgiven for feeling an overwhelming sense of deja vu watching Mr Cameron, who was his political contemporary as Britain’s prime minister. But this was not 2010. Rather, it was last Wednesday night, and Mr Cameron is, as he himself declared in the speech, back – this time as the UK Foreign Secretary.

Mr Barroso, along with hundreds of others, was attending the Foreign Secretary’s annual diplomatic reception, the latest rendition of which featured Mr Cameron setting out his stall as the UK's new top diplomat.

Many in the ornate room in Lancaster House, so familiar as a setting for television dramas shown around the world, were tussling with what it means to have to deal with the return of this 57-year-old veteran Conservative.

In just a few short weeks, Mr Cameron has shown the touches of class that he will bring to the job, and how his confidence can cut through the otherwise run-of-the-mill foreign ministry operations.

With the next election less than a year away, the pressure is on to make a difference. Team Cameron says that he is first to head through the aeroplane doors for a trip abroad. The Middle East and Ukraine are the two clear priorities.

Moves so far from the Foreign Office demonstrate that Mr Cameron is capable of setting the agenda. And importantly, when he takes a decision it contains the seeds of more progress to come.

Already the tone of the UK’s position on Gaza-Israel war has shifted. The Conservative Party has always had a strong tradition of valuing its ties with the Arab world. But in recent years, that has been eclipsed by neo-conservative position-taking that echoes Israeli government talking points.

In just a few short weeks, Mr Cameron has shown the touches of class that he will bring to the job

When the Israeli ambassador in London, an acolyte of Benjamin Netanyahu, called the two-state solution a non-starter this week, Mr Cameron was happy to slap the comments down as unhelpful. Direct language like this was unusual, to say the least.

When the UK government announced that it was ready to follow the US government in rolling out visa bans on those involved in West Bank settler violence, Mr Cameron went beyond this. He said the UK would look to target those who incite the violence, potentially punishing a wider pool of people. The Foreign Secretary also said the UK would look into asset freezes of those in the settlements who are taking up arms and attacking the Palestinians.

This also puts the UK ahead of the EU, which has failed to adopt a similar stance across all its member states, who have been left to individually adopt such measures.

The US visa ban had been announced while Mr Cameron was visiting Washington. While there, his primary task was pushing on the US to maintain its support for Ukraine.

Mr Cameron argues the US should look at the tens of billions of dollars it is sending to Ukraine as tremendous value for money. America is degrading its adversary Russia for a price tag that is a small part of its GDP.

It was interesting to see the same language being used in briefings around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the US a week later. Setting the diplomatic weather is an art of the job. Speaking to parliamentarians last week, Mr Cameron recited the words of an industrialist that the UK is big enough to matter and small enough to be nimble – words that could yet come to define his second time at the higher levels of government.

In the UK’s febrile political atmosphere, Mr Cameron’s every utterance is watched, with the eurosceptic right eager to hound their old foe. It is in this light that he took the decision to publicly upbraid the devolved Scottish leader Humza Yousaf. Mr Yousaf’s decision to meet the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan while at the Cop28 summit without UK Foreign Office note-takers crossed a red line for Mr Cameron. He dispatched a letter to the Scottish administration warning that diplomatic support would be withdrawn if there were similar breaches.

For Mr Cameron the warning amounted to a useful show of robustness to his own party. The reasons why Mr Yousaf would seek to meet Mr Erdogan are fairly obvious. At a time when the Gaza assault was resuming after a pause in fighting, the Scottish First Minister – who has relatives on his wife’s side in Gaza – was no doubt also sharing his humanitarian concerns with Mr Erdogan.

Given Turkey’s own deep concerns about nationalist-driven separatism as a concept, it was quite remarkable that Mr Erdogan went ahead with a meeting with a regional leader committed to splitting up from Britain’s union.

What Mr Yousaf subsequently discovered was that it is unwise to grant Mr Cameron an opportunity to draw distinction with how things should be done, especially if it allows the latter to benefit politically at virtually no cost.

UK diplomats reacted to Mr Cameron’s appointment with fears they would not be able to offer the prime ministerial level of support that he was accustomed to tapping. What they are finding is that Mr Cameron draws the system with him through nimble decisions that are both clear and dynamic. More regional visits are planned as the conflict rages in Gaza. In the Middle East as elsewhere, the Cameron twist will change gears on a UK role that has all too often been stuck in the lower ranges. Britain is not relegated to the ordinary anymore.

Published: December 18, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: December 20, 2023, 4:01 PM