In a dramatic move, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sacked his controversial home secretary and appointed former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary on Monday, bringing him back to the centre of power after he quit politics seven years ago.
The Home Secretary Suella Braverman lost her job on Monday morning, following her provocative remarks about the policing of pro-Palestinian rallies in central London over the weekend. She had been a source of scandals and division in Sunak’s government during her time in office.
Sunak surprised many by naming Cameron as his new foreign secretary, a rare comeback for a former premier in British politics.
Cameron was prime minister from 2010 to 2016, stepping down after Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum that he had initiated.
He led the Conservative Party for 13 years, but his decision to hold the Brexit referendum plunged his party into years of turmoil that it is still trying to overcome.
Downing Street announced that James Cleverly, the previous foreign secretary, will replace Braverman, creating room for Cameron’s return to Cabinet.
Braverman had been Sunak’s interior minister since he became prime minister, but her aggressive stance towards migrants, protesters, the police and even the homeless had alienated many in the government and fuelled rumours that she was eyeing the top job.
She faced backlash recently for claiming that London’s police force had “double standards” in how they handled protests, in an article in the Times of London newspaper that denounced a pro-Palestinian march that Sunak had not approved.
On Saturday, violent clashes erupted between far-right activists and police in central London after Braverman labelled the pro-Palestinian protest a “hate march,” inflaming the situation on Remembrance Sunday.
Braverman faced backlash from various political leaders for her harsh remarks on the police and the pro-Palestinian protest that took place on Saturday.
Neil Basu, the ex-chief of counter-terrorism policing in the UK, warned her on Monday morning on the BBC that her words could worsen the situation. “It is very risky to make such polarizing statements… none of the home secretaries we have worked with would have done that.”
She left the government as Sunak’s party struggled to win the public’s support, with surveys indicating that the Conservatives are heading towards a disastrous election loss next year.
Sunak seemed to hope that bringing Cameron back to the government would restore some order to the chaotic Westminster. But it could also reinforce the perception that the party has no new ideas.
Cameron quit as an MP soon after he stepped down from Downing Street, which meant that King Charles had to quickly approve his entry to the House of Lords on Monday so that he could become a minister.
The move was unprecedented in recent history, except for Alec Douglas-Home – who was prime minister for a year from 1963 – and came back as foreign secretary in 1970 under Edward Heath’s government.
The arrangement raised doubts about how Britain’s new foreign secretary would be accountable; it was very rare in modern politics for a very senior minister to sit in the Lords, and not in the Commons, where MPs work.
“I understand that it is unusual for a prime minister to return in this manner but I am committed to public service,” Cameron said in his first interview after taking the role.”
Cameron returns with a remarkable recovery
“Sunak’s offer to become foreign secretary was “gladly accepted” by Cameron on Monday, who admitted he had criticized the Prime Minister in the past — for example, when Sunak cancelled a costly and long-awaited high speed rail project that Cameron had supported.
“Even though I may have had some disagreements with certain decisions, I have no doubt that Rishi Sunak is a competent and strong Prime Minister, who is demonstrating admirable leadership in a challenging time,” Cameron said.
His comeback to Cabinet is a stunning turn of events in a prominent political career that had apparently and suddenly finished seven years ago.
Cameron brought the Conservative Party back to power in 2010 in a coalition with the moderate Liberal Democrats, having fixed the Tories’ then-damaged reputation as an outdated and disconnected political group.
He combined liberal social policies — persuading his party to legalize same-sex marriage — with harsh economics, slashing the budgets of Britain’s public services and shrinking the state.
But Cameron resigned after failing to campaign to stay in the EU.
His role as foreign secretary implies that the Tories’ flirtation with populism — which emerged during the Brexit campaign and seized the soul of the party during the terms of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — has been abandoned in the lead-up to next year’s general election.
Just a month ago Sunak spoke to the Conservative Party members at their yearly conference, presenting himself as the candidate of change and openly criticizing parts of his own party’s last 13 years in office. He indicated that he was prepared to engage in culture war politics on trans rights and climate change.
Now, two of his three top Cabinet positions are occupied by moderate veterans of 21st century Conservatism — Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor.
Cameron was strongly against Brexit; even though he called the 2016 referendum to satisfy right-wingers in his party, he campaigned against the break from the EU and told The Times in 2019 that some people “will never forgive me” for holding the vote.
Unlike Braverman, both Cleverly and Cameron are unlikely to deviate from the script and attack the police or protesters. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, either of them proposing that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights so it can more easily deport refugees to Rwanda –- a main Braverman policy that courts have been blocking for months.
But Braverman’s impact is unlikely to vanish. Sunak has created a powerful foe of Braverman and given ammunition to critics who will view today as evidence of something they had already assumed: that the Prime Minister is a centrist traitor who is more at ease surrounded by other centrist Conservatives than promoting populism.”
Braverman’s controversial streak ends in dismissal
Braverman is a divisive figure among the Conservatives. She has tried to appeal to the right-wing base of the party with populist messages, and has become the symbol of Britain’s tough stance on asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants. However, her controversial language and actions in government have alienated many moderate members of the party.
She caused more tension between her office and the police with her comments on Saturday’s protest, just days after she posted on the social media platform X that rough sleepers chose to “live on the streets as a lifestyle choice,” and suggested a policy to prevent homeless people from getting tents.
Sunak had expressed his confidence in Braverman as recently as Thursday. But his spokesperson said on Monday that there were “issues around language” that came up during their working relationship, as well as “differences of style.”
“It’s right that we can move forward now and focus on what matters to people,” his spokesperson said.
Sunak is believed to have called Braverman on Monday morning after deciding to fire her.
But her removal could trigger a power struggle at the top of the ruling party, plunging Britain into another period of political turmoil and instability.
While a leadership challenge against Sunak would be a risky move for a party that has already gone through five prime ministers in seven years, there is a growing dissatisfaction among its members with Sunak’s failure to improve the Conservatives’ prospects.
Braverman might also be considering a bid for leadership after the upcoming general election, expected late next year, if the Conservatives lose power to the resurgent opposition Labour Party.
But in that case, Braverman would have to present herself as a radical alternative to Sunak in the next few months – a strategy that could undermine the prime minister’s electoral campaign in the new year.
This is the second time in just over a year that Braverman has been sacked as home secretary. She held the post for six weeks during Liz Truss’s chaotic premiership last year, before quitting for breaking ministerial rules by using a private email address.
But she returned to the same position just days later; her resignation led to Truss’s downfall, and her successor Sunak quickly restored her after taking power.
Under Sunak, Braverman led a high-profile campaign to crack down on small boat crossings by asylum-seekers. The government’s main illegal migration bill, passed by MPs earlier this year, would essentially give the government the authority to deport anyone who arrives illegally in the United Kingdom.
She is also a fierce culture warrior, using rhetoric from the American right to attack “woke” culture, transgender rights and climate protesters.
Her frequent attention-grabbing comments have provided ammunition to the government’s opponents. Last week, after Sunak’s government announced its plan for the new session of Parliament, opposition leader Keir Starmer warned Sunak in the House of Commons to “think very carefully about what she is committing your government to do.”
“Without a serious home secretary, there can be no serious government and he cannot be a serious prime minister,” Starmer said.