The constitutional novelty of Lord David Cameron

Running a department from the Upper Chamber is unusual but not unprecedented—I should know

November 15, 2023
David Cameron was appointed foreign secretary on Monday. Image:  ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
David Cameron was appointed foreign secretary on Monday. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

David Cameron’s resurrection is amazing in all kinds of ways. One of them is that he is a Cabinet minister heading a department from the House of Lords.

It isn’t without precedent. Peter Mandelson and I headed departments from the Lords in the last Labour government. Lords Carrington and Home were foreign secretaries under Thatcher and Macmillan respectively.

A key point is accountability. By my reckoning, peer ministers—junior and senior—spend as much time if not more answering questions and speaking in debates in the Lords as their MP counterparts do in the Commons. Given the wide and deep experience of members of the Lords, not least in foreign affairs, it is hard to argue that ministers aren’t interrogated properly and put through their paces.

The de facto deputy foreign secretary, Andrew Mitchell, is an MP and he will answer for his boss in the Commons chamber. He also attends Cabinet. Several other junior Foreign Office ministers are also MPs and answer in the Commons too.

Peer Cabinet ministers also appear before select committees of both Houses, and their relevant select committee in the Commons will be especially keen to summon them. As transport secretary I appeared before my departmental select committee of the Commons virtually every month, far more frequently than many secretaries of state actually in the Commons, so that MPs got a chance to question me thoroughly despite my inability to answer questions in the chamber. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee would do well to agree a similar arrangement with Cameron.

I also saw any MP who wished to meet me to discuss constituency or policy issues, as a matter of principle, and would have been ready and willing to answer questions in the Commons chamber—or its Westminster Hall sub-chamber—had the request come. Speaker John Bercow was keen and at one point it seemed that this might happen. However, senior MPs on both sides refused to countenance such an arrangement. Centuries of parliamentary tradition were prayed in aid, but I sensed an unspoken objection that if peer Cabinet ministers were too readily accountable to the Commons there might be more of them, breaking the near monopoly of the Commons.

There is, of course, a good argument based on democratic legitimacy as to why most—if not all—senior ministers should be elected MPs. The counter-argument is that the House of Commons is in theory a legislature not an executive, but currently masses of its members serve in government. The Commons might be a better legislature if fewer of its members doubled as ministers and it provided stronger, more independent scrutiny of government policy and actions. And arguably we could secure better government by widening the pool from which ministers are drawn, which is the practical effect of peer ministers.

However, not having an elected president as in France and the US, there is no source of democratic legitimacy for government in the UK apart from the Commons. The part-appointed, part-hereditary House of Lords certainly provides none.

So the present arrangement seems about right, whereby peer Cabinet ministers, largely accountable to the Lords as a lesser branch of the legislature, are acceptable provided there are never more than one or two of them at a time.

The bigger question is whether Cameron will be a good foreign secretary. Given his responsibility for the biggest foreign policy disaster since the Second World War in Brexit, he is clearly not God’s gift to diplomacy nor to political judgements about how best to advance British interests in the face of democratic and populist pressures.

But Lord Cameron looks and sounds the part of chief diplomat. He has a good contacts book. And in the months remaining before a general election, he can hardly do more damage than the six other foreign secretaries, led by Boris Johnson, who have held office in the seven years since his ill-fated Brexit referendum.