When David Cameron resigned as Britain’s prime minister after losing the Brexit vote in 2016, he offered members of Parliament a rueful valedictory: “I was the future once.” Few, perhaps including Mr. Cameron himself, expected to see him return.
And yet on Monday morning, there he was, striding up the leaf-strewn driveway of 10 Downing Street to accept an appointment as foreign secretary from the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Mr. Cameron’s appointment must rank as one of the most remarkable comebacks in British political history.
For Mr. Sunak, who has presented himself as a change agent, it is not just a surprising choice, but also a deeply counterintuitive one. Mr. Cameron is nothing if not a bridge to the Conservative past. The decisions he made, and the policies he pursued, are vexing Mr. Sunak’s government today, a dubious inheritance that helps explain the erratic course of a prime minister in political trouble.
Few public figures are more closely identified with Brexit than Mr. Cameron, who called the referendum on leaving the European Union, campaigned against it, and then resigned after a narrow majority of Britons, including Mr. Sunak, voted in favor of it.
And few are more linked to austerity, the economic policy that Mr. Cameron, 57, introduced when he took office in 2010. It has been blamed for starving Britain’s public services, including the crisis-ridden National Health Service, which has helped drag down the popularity of Mr. Sunak’s government.
Mr. Cameron’s victory in 2010, forming a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats, inaugurated a long era of Conservative government. Though Mr. Sunak has at times embraced that legacy, in particular with his emphasis on fiscal responsibility, he has also appeared to be running in opposition to it.
“Be in no doubt,” he told Conservative Party members at their annual conference last month, “it is time for a change, and we are it.”
It is not clear how recruiting a checkered former prime minister fits the definition of change. But Mr. Cameron’s appointment does serve another purpose: with James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, moving into Suella Braverman’s job at the Home Office, Mr. Sunak needed an experienced, familiar figure to run the Foreign Office at a time when major wars are raging in Ukraine and Gaza.
“There is a chance — a faint one, but nonetheless a chance — that this will afford the U.K. more clout on the global stage at a time of intense international conflict,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Bringing in Mr. Cameron will help Mr. Sunak pull his cabinet to the center after a period in which Ms. Braverman’s inflammatory statements prompted criticism that the government had become extreme and reactionary on issues like immigration. Mr. Cameron also has a keen interest in foreign policy. As prime minister, he created a National Security Council modeled on the one in the White House.
“Sunak is not that interested in foreign policy,” said Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “This is a case of, ‘who can I give foreign policy to so I don’t have to worry about it for the next year?’”
But the domestic politics of Mr. Cameron’s appointment “are pretty hard to divine,” Professor Bale said, “leaving aside, of course, the day or two of distraction it will provide from Suella Braverman’s belated departure.”
Mr. Cameron remains a divisive figure, even within his party, for the way he had handled the Brexit referendum. Some Tories accused him of political expediency, trying to quell the party’s restive right wing. Others said he led a lackluster campaign against Brexiteers, like Nigel Farage and another former prime minister, Boris Johnson.
Mr. Cameron justified calling the referendum by saying that Britons deserved a vote on the country’s relationship with the European Union, given how much the E.U. had changed during its decades of membership.
Still, Michael Portillo, a former cabinet minister, said calling the 2016 referendum “will be remembered as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister” — an opinion that was not unusual in political circles.
When Tom Bradby, an ITV anchor, interviewed Mr. Cameron in 2019 for the rollout of his memoir, “For the Record,” he said viewers had written him to say, “I hope you’re going to ask him to apologize for the mess he left.”
“I accept that my approach failed,” Mr. Cameron wrote in his book. “The decisions I took contributed to that failure. I failed.”
Fiscal austerity, which Mr. Cameron pursued with his chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has likewise cast a long shadow over his tenure. Mr. Cameron has defended the policy as a necessary response to the global financial crisis. He noted that he left Britain’s economy with more jobs than when he took office.
But the cuts in public spending for institutions like the N.H.S. have left deep scars. Mr. Sunak has vowed to reduce waiting times at N.H.S. hospitals, making it one of his five major goals. Critics predict it will be an uphill struggle because of the years of underinvestment, dating to Mr. Cameron’s government.
Mr. Cameron’s poll numbers were already low, Professor Bale said, and his reputation was further tarnished after he was caught up in a scandal for lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, an Anglo-Australian finance firm that collapsed in 2021.
Mr. Cameron sent text messages to Mr. Sunak, who was then serving as the chancellor of the Exchequer, urging him to approve loans to Greensill, a supply-chain financing company. Mr. Sunak did not act on the requests, but it raised questions about why the firm got as much access as it did.
Mr. Cameron did not violate any laws, but his dealings added to the image of a former leader cashing out. He stood to make $70 million in share options from Greensill, according to the Financial Times; the collapse of the firm rendered those worthless. He also traveled to Saudi Arabia with the firm’s founder, Lex Greensill, where the two camped with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
By all accounts, Mr. Cameron had been enjoying a comfortable post-political career. He was paid a reported advance of 800,000 pounds ($980,000) for his memoir. He joined several boards and became the president of an Alzheimer’s charity. He plays tennis regularly at a club near his house in West London. In 2017, Mr. Cameron’s wife, Samantha, started her own women’s fashion business.
A graduate of Eton and Oxford whose father was a stockbroker, Mr. Cameron was already a member of the British elite. Now he can add a life peerage in the House of Lords, which King Charles III granted him on Monday so that he can be eligible to serve as foreign secretary. Mr. Cameron stepped down as a member of Parliament in 2016; cabinet ministers must serve in either the House of Commons or Lords.
Mr. Cameron’s six years in Downing Street will make him an exceedingly well-connected foreign secretary. But critics are scrutinizing the foreign policy positions of his government, some of which look questionable in hindsight.
Mr. Cameron played host to President Xi Jinping of China in 2015, heralding a “golden era” in relations with Beijing. He joined a U.S.-led military intervention in Libya in 2011, which resulted in the overthrow of its dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, but was criticized in Britain for the messy aftermath.
Mr. Cameron cultivated close relations with the United States, once attending a college basketball game as a guest of President Barack Obama. But the two hit a rough patch over plans to respond to Syria after it used chemical weapons against its own people.
Mr. Obama has cited Mr. Cameron’s failure to win approval from Parliament for a military strike as one of the reasons he shelved his planned strike. Mr. Cameron personally favored military action, even if he could not persuade lawmakers, while Mr. Obama ultimately decided against it.
“On Syria,” Mr. Cameron said in an interview with The New York Times, “I don’t think we did see things in the same way.”