David Cameron is back in government, bet you didn’t see that coming. Somehow it’s only been seven years since he resigned as Prime Minister following the referendum to leave the European Union, an event seemingly from a different era at this point. Him replacing Suella Braverman in the Cabinet might feel like a move towards moderation for the Sunak government, but that would be wishful thinking.
Already Cameron has announced that “we must do whatever is needed” to “stop the boats and tackle illegal migration.” Braverman’s sacking is more likely to have been caused by her Times article attacking the police for alleged ‘bias’ in favour of pro-Palestine protests rather than her general political outlook. It is after all, strategically myopic for a Home Secretary using the police to enforce harsh and racist policies against undesirable segments of the population to then suggest that the police sometimes act illegitimately.
A remarkable example of how far British politics has lurched to the right in the last decade is the fact that when David Cameron was Prime Minister, then regarded as a firmly right-of-centre politician, he was quoted as saying in the House of Commons: "Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza." He later confirmed his position in a trip to Turkey where he stated “the situation in Gaza has to change… Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.” Today, instead of Cameron being asked by the mainstream media whether he still stands by these statements, it seems the preference is to not draw attention to the reality that the British political class have collectively radicalised themselves so severely that what was a perfectly mainstream conservative position a decade ago appears fringe now.
Furthermore, we shouldn’t lose sight that the Cameron government is chiefly responsible for many ruinous policies that paved the way to extreme ideologues like Braverman entering government in the first place.
As University of Warwick associate professor Thiemo Fetzer pointed out, “austerity-induced cuts to the welfare system since 2010 played an important role in shoring support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Vote Leave.” It’s a fitting irony of history that Cameron’s flagship austerity programme ended up playing such a critical role in creating the political crisis that caused his demise, but the real victims are the British working class, who’ve suffered under a decade of worsening living standards, collapsing public services and an estimated 335,000 excess deaths from 2012-19.
Unable to improve or even meaningfully ameliorate the decline in people’s lives has resulted in a government resorting to scapegoating and/or inciting hatred towards immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, benefits claimants and increasingly the political left in general.
If there was ever a slight deviation from this trajectory, it was the relatively optimistic programme of Boris Johnson and his ‘levelling up’ pledges, though even if we were to take that at face value, he was deposed in a very media-driven soft-coup event before he had any real opportunity to implement such a thing. It’s barely mentioned in mainstream political discourse, but the Sunak government has an outrageous lack of democratic legitimacy. Not only is he governing on a platform with little resemblance to what the Conservatives were elected on in 2019 (when Sunak wasn’t even in the Cabinet), but he has behaved as if he has been given a personal mandate.
For instance most of HS2 was cancelled with a personal announcement from Sunak that “I’m stopping all phases of HS2 beyond Birmingham”, a style more resembling a presidential system than the UK’s formal cabinet government. This would be problematic enough if he had become Prime Minister merely by being voted in by Conservative Party members, but this is the man who lost the 2022 Conservative Leadership election, yet became PM anyway after the British political class largely revolted against the actual winner and forced her to resign within weeks. If Britain were not regarded a ‘representative democracy’, this would surely be considered a highly undemocratic method for a country to appoint its de facto ruler.
Sunak’s imposition was a firm signal that the only legitimate political programme in this country is one that strictly follows the Cameron-Sunak line of economic immiseration at home, war abroad and diverting potential opposition by blaming the victims of these very policies.
Despite his comments on Gaza mentioned earlier, it should be noted that Cameron was responsible for multiple disasters in Middle East foreign policy. As much as Tony Blair is blamed for the Iraq War, it should be noted that Cameron not only voted for it, but even after the Chilcot Enquiry still insisted that it is “wrong to conclude that we should not stand with [our] US allies when our common interest is threatened”. Further, he would not even in hindsight consider that the invasion may have been a mistake, something even Blair has done.
Domestically, Cameron’s reactionary agenda is only distinguished from Sunak’s in that it was less further down the same path. In his last year as PM, Cameron blamed Muslim women “not learning English” for causing extremism, claiming that “one of the main reasons young men are vulnerable to radicalisation is the "traditional submissiveness of Muslim women"”. This was a statement both lacking in any evidence and particularly hypocritical, considering a 57% cut in government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes mostly happened while he was in power.
Theresa May rightfully gets a lot of blame for the racist policies of the Conservatives in office, yet none of them have ever been seriously rebuked by Sunak, and most of it was done when she was Home Secretary in Cameron’s administration. Although then Home Secretary Amber Rudd took the blame for the Windrush scandal when it emerged in 2018, the “hostile environment” policies responsible for it were in fact enacted in 2012 under May. Despite being marketed as being about reducing “illegal” immigration, it clearly went far beyond this as an explicit goal was to deliver a Conservative Party promise to reduce net-migration figures to the “tens of thousands”, which obviously would have to go far beyond tackling merely illegal immigration (which is mostly hidden anyway).
In 2013 Cameron-May were also responsible for the notorious “Go Home” vans being driven through heavily foreign-born areas of London, an approach so aggressive that even far-right Nigel Farage criticised it as “nasty”.
There is a direct line of escalation from the early Cameron government that resulted in Braverman. Her leaving the government may temporarily mean a toning down of the rhetoric, but it’s unrealistic to expect anything more than that. The one good thing we can take from this is that the government is weak and divided, and so the opposition (no I do not mean Keir Starmer) should also be unrelenting.
Daniel Lindley is a trade union activist in the UK.
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.