It is all too easy, often necessary, and, let’s be honest, good fun to take the scourge to this Tory government.
They have, for far too long, been an absolute shower, playing to the worst instincts of the most extreme elements of their party. Boris Johnson was a bad joke played on the country by a mad god, Liz Truss a surreal – thankfully short-lived, though still damaging – interlude. A series of unfit oddballs have been allowed to occupy important jobs in the cabinet.
By the time Rishi Sunak took office in October last year, his inheritance amounted to little more than a burned-out husk. Labour was miles ahead in the polls, and deservedly remain so today. Despite everything, some self-deluding Conservatives still believe they have a chance of winning the next election. It is not going to happen.
How, then, should Sunak govern? The economy is a mess, the country angry and divided, and we spend more of our time arguing about identity politics in its many forms than we do about the quality of our public services. Brexit has seriously limited our room for manoeuvre as we attempt to right the ship.
It’s pretty clear that the prime minister is a capable man, probably the best suited to the job since David Cameron. But his obvious strengths – he is a wonk and, I think, a decent person, not a conniver and a shafter – have left him prey to the ideologues and card sharps in his party and government.
Sunak has been pushed this way and that in order to placate the ultimately unplacatable right. He endured, and forced us to endure, the truly grim Suella Braverman as home secretary for too long. There has been a sense that he has betrayed his instincts and listened too closely to people he should have kicked to the kerb.
Well, fair dos. Bully Braverman has finally pushed him too far and been removed from office. One feels Sunak was simply waiting for an excuse, and her behaviour around Remembrance Day was utterly unforgivable. Decisions around immigration and law and order will now sit with the more considered James Cleverly. Good.
Even that decision will be overshadowed, however, by the big news of this reshuffle – the return of David Cameron. The former PM is regarded by some of those most hurt and enraged by Brexit as beyond the pale. I don’t see it that way.
This is no time for a novice
It’s true that Cameron blew the referendum. He was too complacent, something to which he has always seemed prone. But he was, overall, not a bad leader of the country. He took his party towards the centre, was respected by fellow international leaders, has an astute brain, and, compared to what we’ve had since his departure, led a cabinet of able and largely moderate politicians.
You might not like the Tories, but they have always been democratically elected. And, if you’re going to have a Conservative government – I say this as a centrist social democrat – I’d take the Cameroons over pretty much anything else that might be offered. One of the reasons the party has veered so far to the fringes is that Boris Johnson instituted a clear-out of those moderates. Not only are there few left in government, there aren’t many left in parliament.
David Cameron is something I like – the ex-politician who has had time to reflect on success and failure
This is no time for a novice, Gordon Brown once said. It’s rarely been truer than it is today. The Middle East is on fire, Ukraine is an ongoing tragedy, the US is somehow threatening to put Donald Trump or someone with similar views in the White House, and those who would like to see the West usurped, whether they are based in Beijing, Moscow or Tehran, are seizing the moment.
The Westminster bubble responded with bafflement and derision to Cameron’s appointment. I suspect the country will be less troubled. He has already held the biggest job in the country, and is therefore stripped of the kind of personal ambition that gets politicians into trouble. He will not play games. He doesn’t want Sunak’s post.
Instead, he is something I like – the ex-politician who has had time to reflect on success and failure. Think of William Hague, who is strikingly honest about his experiences and the state of the Tories, and is an important voice for moderate Conservatism. Think of how Ed Balls has matured since leaving parliament – his podcast with one-time rival George Osborne is a valuable insight into power and how to wield it (and how not to).
Competence and character are most important
Cameron’s appointment will also infuriate those on the right who deserve to be infuriated. Nigel Farage, as he enters the jungle to take part in I’m a Celebrity and collect a £1.5 million cheque, will be spitting blood as well as cockroaches.
In the end, I also think Cameron will be good at the job of foreign secretary. We’re so caught up in personalities these days that we seem to have set aside judgments on competence and character. But they remain the two most important qualities in leadership.
Rishi Sunak will be out of office at some point next year, and David Cameron will go with him. In the meantime, our best hope might be that they do no harm, and perhaps even a little bit of good. With Braverman gone and an experienced hand in the Foreign Office, I’m more confident of that outcome today.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank, Reform Scotland