The Insider

David Cameron is an underwhelming foreign secretary

It’s a relief that Cameron isn’t making things worse in his new post. But he’s not having much positive impact 

April 17, 2024
Image: Malcolm Park / Alamy
Image: Malcolm Park / Alamy

As the government splinters and disintegrates, it is reassuring to have David Cameron as foreign secretary. With wars and conflict raging across the Middle East and Ukraine, he exudes activity, competence and professionalism, and doesn’t make you embarrassed to be British.

Also, he isn’t making things worse, which is another commendable quality in a cabinet which in many areas is leaving a scorched earth for its successor. He may even make a few things better, for example in reactivating the long-stalled negotiations to agree on post-Brexit arrangements for Gibraltar.

However, on the main lines of policy, he is basically on autopilot, continuing in existing grooves with no greater impact, albeit with lots of social media fanfare. Big policy changes, if they are to happen, await a change of government—particularly changes to the terms of Brexit for the UK, which is the area of foreign policy that needs revising urgently. Cameron is powerless to act against the Brexiters, including Rishi Sunak, which is a grim irony given that Brexit is the legacy that damns him.

On the Middle East and Ukraine, Cameron hasn’t had taken a notably different stance to Sunak or his previous foreign secretary, James Cleverly. His verbal criticism of Israel over the scale of its assaults on Gaza hasn’t led to any lessening of effective British support for the Netanyahu government, not even in respect of weapons exports. The latest formulation on Israel’s adherence to international law in Gaza—that Netanyahu’s government has the “intention and the ability” to observe humanitarian law—is an obvious sticking plaster to reconcile Cameroon rhetoric with a determination not to change policy.

In actual policy, Cameron has been in lockstep on Israel with the Biden administration, and the latest Iranian bombing of Israel gives little scope for changing this, even if Cameron wished to do so.

Regarding Ukraine, there has also been no change or enhanced policy. Cameron’s personal diplomacy in Mar-a-Lago with Trump, and on Capitol Hill with obstructive Republicans, doesn’t appear to have made any difference in unlocking more US aid for Zelensky’s government. Nor does he appear to have made much practical difference in Berlin, where he also sought to unlock extra military support being held up by Olaf Scholz. He didn’t even get to see Scholz personally when he visited Berlin last month.