Rishi, Rwanda, refugees and the politics of moving the Conservatives away from the right

At the end of the British Prime Minister's bold week, there are signs that his decisive shift will appeal to voters

13/11/2023. London, United Kingdom. David Cameron speaks with the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak as he is appointed as Foreign Secretary as the Prime Minister reshuffles his cabinet from 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
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Surprise is one of the most valuable assets in British politics and by that yardstick Rishi Sunak proved his mastery last week when he reintroduced former prime minister David Cameron to government ranks as Foreign Secretary.

The announcement marked the opening shot in the most momentous week for Mr Sunak’s premiership as he seeks to build on the slimmest of chances for electoral success next year.

The Cameron move can play well for his political fortunes if it shows that the party has a united, experienced cabinet top team that knows what it is doing.

“The Prime Minister knows he's going to have to appeal to the broadest range of people as possible so he's going to create a coalition from the centre to the right,” said Dr Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.

“Also, you want to go into an election entirely with your own team, people who you feel comfortable going into battle with.”

Mr Sunak has now arranged a front-rank team that he is happy to take into a general election less than a year away, although it is still questionable whether a more centrist cabinet can win over an electorate wearied by 13 years of Conservative rule.

In just a few hours on Monday Mr Sunak realigned his government, tacking it from the right wing by some degrees towards the centre, where elections are always won in Britain.

Sacking his recalcitrant home secretary Suella Braverman removed the most vehement and outspoken right-winger in cabinet.

But if there was a bounce expected from the surprise appointment, which handily overshadowed Ms Braverman’s sacking, it was soon subsumed by the courts ruling that the government’s Rwanda deportation scheme was unlawful.

Barely three days into the week, Mr Sunak was again battling for party unity with the right wing again fomenting fury.

Cameron bounce

The Cameron appointment was among the best-kept political secrets, with his sudden appearance in Downing Street on Monday taking every commentator by surprise.

Appointing a former prime minister as foreign secretary, from the moderate wing, was a shrewd move welcomed by many in the party.

Former foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood was among those suggesting it might make the Conservatives more electable.

“It will vastly improve our election prospects, rather than the gradual drift towards the extreme,” Mr Ellwood told The National.

To turn this around they are going to have to present a very stable, sensible, strong government for the next year
Chris Hopkins

It also meant that a respected international figure was returning to the global stage “at a time when the greatest statecraft is needed to deal with all the flashing alarm bells on the global order dashboard”.

“I hope it will see further engagement in utilising our soft power and convening power to deal with some of the global challenges not least in the Middle East,” Mr Ellwood said.

The appointment showed Mr Sunak’s understanding of the scale of problems Britain and the world faced, said Charlotte Leslie, director of the influential Conservative Middle East Council.

“It's testament to Rishi Sunak’s understanding of the demands of the global situation and his confidence as a prime minister to be able to appoint someone of such standing to stand alongside him,” Ms Leslie said.

What Mr Cameron brought to the table was the personal relationships with heads of state that “takes years to assemble”, making it an “extremely astute appointment”.

But not everyone welcomed it.

“David Cameron is a political lightweight with a series of foreign policy failures hanging round his neck from his time in office,” said Prof Jeremy Black, the foreign affairs commentator.

Prof Black listed the 2011 “foolish Libya intervention”, the failure in 2012 to get the bombing of Syria approved by parliament and the continuing fall-out from the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“I'm not sure why Rishi brought him back but he clearly wanted somebody that could take the burden of foreign policy off his shoulders,” he said.

“People will have their own views of David Cameron but his international stance was actually characterised by failure.”

Head East

Curiously, when Mr Sunak was asked in Parliament on Wednesday to list Mr Cameron’s foreign affairs achievements during his six years as prime minister, all he could come up with was the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in 2013.

It was perhaps an oversight not to mention his directive for British soldiers to start training 30,000 Ukrainian troops after Russia’s first invasion in 2014.

That point was left to be made by Mr Cameron's team when Ukraine became his first foreign visit on Thursday.

The optics of the first time aside, it will be the Middle East where he will face the biggest challenges of his diplomatic skills.

“There has been a sense that the British have been adrift in the region over the years,” said Dr Mendoza said.

“What he could make clear to our Middle East partners is that we are actually very open to working more with them to create a new Middle East.”

More importantly, Mr Cameron carried the political weight to potentially assist with a Palestine-Israel deal, and expand the Abraham Accords, he said.

A senior Conservative official close to Mr Cameron said that Mr Sunak had appointed a “political big-hitter” as the crisis in Gaza “had significantly focused minds that British interests are international away from internal divisions”.

“These are really quite exceptional times and the response needed to be outside the box,” the official added.

Rishi’s Rwanda

Unfortunately for Mr Sunak those internal divisions remain, particularly after the Rwanda decision.

He has in part moved deftly to fend off the right-wing rebellion by putting emergency legislation through Parliament to designate Rwanda a safe country and begin deportations by next spring.

This comes with significant risk, in that he may well be challenged by asylum seekers in the European Court of Human Rights, putting the policy back to square one.

But at least for now he has contained the anger on the right, yet it is another division poorly viewed by the public, said Chris Hopkins from Savanta, the polling company.

“Rwanda just reinforces among the electorate this idea that the Conservatives are divided and don't really know what they're doing,” Mr Hopkins said.

“To turn this around they are going to have to present a very stable, sensible, strong government for the next year, yet we haven't seen any evidence of that in the last three.”

He did not believe that Mr Cameron’s appointment would “make a huge difference to voting intentions” and that it instead suggested “a sense that they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.

Election odds

If successful in the region, will this affect on the electoral fortunes of the Conservatives?

Mr Cameron’s appointment and Ms Braverman’s dismissal have at least given hope among moderate Conservatives that they might, against all odds, succeed at the next election.

“It’s a long shot, I know,” said the Tory official. “But this could just settle everybody down and demonstrate that we’re looking towards big-picture stuff; that the PM and foreign secretary are statesmen and they're in control.”

Updated: November 17, 2023, 6:00 PM