Welcome back, Mr. Cameron?

The former prime minister returns to government to be greeted by the aftermath of a decade of austerity and a Conservative Party radicalized by Brexit

David Cameron
David Cameron returns to Downing Street as the new foreign secretary last Tuesday.ANDY RAIN (EFE)

Food banks are no longer a source of embarrassment. Outside the doors of the Anglican Emmanuel Parish Church, on London’s multicultural Harrow Road, a group of people — mostly women — chatted among themselves last Friday, clutching their shopping carts as they waited for the doors to open. The Emmanuel Food Pantry is a charity initiative that allows people to purchase, for five pounds ($6.23), basic necessities worth about 20 pounds (almost $25). “For me and my family, it has been a life-saver for years,” admits Aisha, her hair covered with a hijab. Zhade, of Afro-Caribbean origin, nods and smiles.

Fourteen years after David Cameron’s Conservative government imposed austerity policies in the United Kingdom — designed to reduce public debt and recover from the 2008 crisis — the former prime minister has returned to the front line of politics as foreign secretary in Rishi Sunak’s government, to find a country that has still not recovered from the deterioration of public services and private spending power brought about by that decision. Paradoxically, Cameron’s political renaissance is an attempt to steer a completely transformed Conservative Party — radicalized by the UK’s departure from the European Union, which the former prime minister provoked in 2016 with a reckless referendum — back to the center and moderation.

“Austerity disappeared from the Conservative ideology in 2019, with Boris Johnson’s electoral program, in which he disavowed the concept and promised an increase in public investment, but we are still being dragged down by the consequences of that,” Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London and director of UK in a Changing Europe, an academic organization that continues to rigorously analyze the consequences of Brexit, explains to EL PAÍS. “The base on which recovery started was very low, and we have not been able to make the necessary capital investment,” he adds.

It was the perfect storm. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, care services, especially the National Health Service, had been reduced to the bone by the austerity measures of the Cameron years. That is why the former prime minister ended up becoming one of the most despised figures in the collective imagination of British citizens.

“The main thing about Cameron is that he smacks of failure in every pore. Brexit, Libya, the economy: all of the problems that are faced in public services were aggravated by years of austerity. Cameron’s appointment is almost certainly because Sunak is at the end of his rope,” philosopher and analyst John Gray told The New Statesman. " Cameron is a time-warp figure. His appointment is a bafflingly inept move, the only rational explanation of which is that it represents exhaustion and fatigue on the part of the government […] It’s a suicide letter on the part of Sunak.”

Nostalgia for a conservative past

Sunak has a year to try to turn around polls that are devastating for the Tories. All of them give at least 20 percentage points of advantage to the Labour Party ahead of a general election scheduled for the end of 2024. The prime minister, relatively new in politics and with a reputation as an effective technocrat, has attempted in recent months to cultivate an extreme right-wing message that, in theory, should please the ears of the party’s rank and file, and voters.

Brexit and Boris Johnson’s electoral victory in 2019 ended up completely transforming a Conservative Party already leaning toward populism, anti-immigration and anti-Europe rhetoric, and a social authoritarianism of an almost reactionary cut against anything they define as woke: denunciation of a colonial past, latent institutional racism or an intolerant attitude towards gender policies.

This was not a natural playing field for Sunak, who in fact was increasingly overwhelmed by the “internal enemy” — former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, backed by the hardline wing of the Tories, was increasingly brazen about championing a rebellion against the prime minister which, after being expelled from the government, she has elevated to a clear declaration of war.

Faced with these maneuvers, Sunak has finally played his hand. The incorporation of Cameron is a nod to those center-right voters, economically liberal and socially open, who feel orphaned by a radicalized Conservative Party. Cameron arrived at Downing Street with a team of collaborators belonging to cosmopolitan and modern urban elites. The Notting Hill Boys — alluding to London’s chic neighborhood of restaurants and bookstores — sold a “compassionate conservatism,” defense of the environment, and social advances such as gay marriage.

Cameron was able to forge a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in his first term, and won a surprising absolute majority at his second election in 2015. But his chancellor, George Osborne, had already sown the seeds of dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed implementation of an austerity policy that took tens of billions of required investments away from public services.

“Austerity was never a necessity, but rather a very poor economic policy choice whose consequences have now been clearly exposed. Any return to further spending cuts, to rebound from the pandemic crisis, would impose another dramatic cost on a country that has barely recovered from the last round of cuts,” warns Robert Calvert, professor at the University of Greenwich’s Economic Policy Institute and author of a devastating report on the legacy of austerity conducted for the Progressive Economic Policy Forum.

Calvert refers to the restrictive fiscal measures imposed by Sunak and his finance minister, Jeremy Hunt, to reverse the collapse of the UK’s credibility caused by his predecessor, Liz Truss. After months of strikes by nurses, doctors, truckers, railroad staff, and teachers, the idea of restoring popularity with the man many point to as the main cause of a few years of hardship is a hard sell.

Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary has no reason to influence the national policy debate in an election year. But placing at the helm of the UK’s international image the person who isolated the country furthest from its neighbors and partners with the Brexit referendum will not be to the liking of the core of Conservative voters in favor of remaining in the EU either.

Economically, a bad memory. As an attempt to resurrect a Conservative Party that no longer exists, a mirage. Second chances rarely work in politics. The only success achieved by Sunak has been to dampen, to some extent and in the short-term, the noise and fury of the rebellion led by Braverman with the exoticism and surprise that many Britons will have felt on seeing Cameron enter Downing Street again.

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