A soft “What the hell” was heard from a reporter as former Prime Minister David Cameron stepped out of the car outside 10 Downing Street on Monday. The significance of the moment was quickly deduced as earlier Suella Braverman was sacked as Home Secretary and former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had already walked through Britain’s most famous door: Cleverly becomes Home Secretary and Cameron, returning from political oblivion, replaces him as Foreign Secretary.
The appointment of Cameron, who is not an MP in the House of Commons and had to be elevated to a peerage by King Charles III to take office, is not only something no one saw coming. It is also a manifestation that Sunak might lead the Conservatives back in a direction that does not resonate with the voters.
A Look at the Political Realignment
A political realignment has been evident in British politics for just as long as in US politics. And it was the Conservatives’ realigned political approach, which emerged with the Brexit vote in 2016, that gave them a large majority in the 2019 general election. The landslide victory of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives was ultimately deliverable thanks to a large number of traditional Labour voters who switched in the hope of getting Brexit done.
It showed that there was a large voter base that the Conservatives could not only win over, but also lead them to large majorities. I will call this voter base the ‘New Majority’. This ‘New Majority’ can be sketched as conservative to very conservative when it comes to social issues while supporting economic positions traditionally held by left to center-left parties.
In conservative circles, the realignment towards this ‘New Majority’ is frequently viewed critically, especially by people who were thought leaders in the years before 2016. Primarily because they do not see this new orientation as being conservative, but rather interpret classical liberalism as being conservatism to advocate liberal social policy and economic libertarianism. This interpretation of conservative politics, however, is not only not conservative, but also a formula for guaranteed electoral defeat.
The Case for Conservatism
That this ‘New Majority’ should be the Conservatives’ target voter base and can be turned into a lasting majority is shown in the recent report “The Case for Conservatism” by Gavin Rice and Nick Timothy at Onward. As they put it:
“There is significant political advantage to be gained in a political party moving towards the real centre-ground. A more culturally conservative policy platform would bring the Tory Party nearer to Conservative voters’ social values. Mirroring this, an economic policy platform emphasising greater fairness and security, rather than deregulation and individualism, would bring it closer to the economic values of both Conservative and Labour voters.”
The report shows that there is a major disconnect between Conservative voters’ attitudes to economic and social issues and what the Conservatives are doing in terms of policy. In order to deliver policy that serves the electoral base, the report establishes 12 new core principles that lead to a “form of conservatism that takes long-established insights and principles and applies them to very modern challenges and problems. It argues for a conservatism that is popular and democratic, seeking to serve the whole nation.”
This includes a desire for a more active state, moving away from the old Conservative emphasis on limiting the state as much as possible. Working towards a fairer social contract by doing more for workers and families rather than pursue tax cuts that only benefit the few – an approach that was the beginning of the end for Liz Truss. And for the preservation of the environment, including more action on climate change.
On Suella Braverman
So where does David Cameron fit into this vision? He doesn’t!
Lord Cameron represents the pre-realignment form of the Conservatives, a form that makes policy not for those who find their desires reflected in the Rice and Timothy report but for the liberal elite who have benefited from previous Conservative governments.
Not only that, this appointment must also be seen in the context of the sacking of Suella Braverman. Braverman is a prominent figure who covers many of the concerns of voters who put their faith in the Tories – often for the first time – in 2019. Furthermore, for many people who felt that Rishi Sunak’s policies did not sufficiently address the concerns of the ‘New Majority’, she seemed a possible successor.
She spoke out against mass legal and illegal immigration. The Rice-Timothy report states “Currently, 63% of voters say that inward economic migration is too high” and “Polling conducted for Onward shows that there is a migration-sceptic majority in 75% of parliamentary constituencies.”
She spoke out against multiculturalism. Rice and Timothy’s report cites a Demos study which found that “71% of British adults say they believe that immigration has made the communities where migrants have settled more divided, reaching 78% in high-migration areas.”
And she spoke in defence of national identity. The Rice-Timothy report states, “A 2021 poll found that 61% of voters said they were very or fairly patriotic, compared to just 32% who said they were not very or not at all”.
These three examples alone show that her views are in line with those of the British population and even more so with those of the Conservative voters of 2019, who form part of the ‘New Majority’.
The Meaning of David Cameron’s Appointment
Now Lord Cameron is given a place in the Cabinet, while Braverman is sent back to the backbenches. Although he has not directly replaced her, one has to imagine that the two personnel decisions are viewed hand in hand and show two very different pictures of Conservative politics.
The ‘new majority’ will certainly perceive this as a vindication of pre-2016 policies and refrain from voting Blue in the next general election. One can’t have a former Prime Minister in the Cabinet, especially in one of the Great Offices of State, without them shaping, at least in part, what voters expect from the Party would they vote for them. And in this case, they are likely to see a return of social and economic liberalism, which, as Rice and Timothy show, as a “political outlook represents just 5% of voters”.
Not only that, but the politicians in the Conservative Party who supported Cameron and often held up the Remain banner will feel validated by this and may feel the momentum in the party shifting back towards them. Now people such as former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine are saying that Rishi Sunak should even consider bringing someone like George Osborne back into the cabinet, or at least letting him work on the levelling-up agenda.
What does this appointment tell potential voters? As Matt Goodwin puts it, “It’s telling them the Tories would much rather return to the pre-Brexit liberal Cameroon era of 2010-2015 than reinvent and renew themselves around the post-Brexit realignment, that they are simply incapable of reinventing who they are.”