How can David Cameron re-join the Cabinet without being an MP?

Former PM makes surprise return to government as foreign secretary following ousting of Suella Braverman

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 14 November 2023 08:30 GMT
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David Cameron enters Number 10 amid Cabinet reshuffle

Former Conservative prime minister David Cameron has made a shock return to government after being appointed foreign secretary in a bombshell Cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Cameron, who is not an elected MP but was made a peer on Monday, is replacing James Cleverly in the role as he moves to the Home Office to replace Suella Braverman.

The controversial home secretary was sacked in the emergency reshuffle after a month that began with her suggesting homelessness was a “lifestyle choice” and ended with her being blamed for far-right protesters disrupting a pro-Palestine rally she had branded a “hate march”, a tense situation that lead to violent clashes and 100 arrests.

Mr Cameron had appeared alongside Mr Sunak and other former prime ministers at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday to pay respects to Britain’s war dead, just hours before accepting his successor’s invitation to serve as foreign secretary.

Elected Conservative Party leader on 6 December 2005, Mr Cameron led a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats from May 2010 and then a Tory majority administration from May 2015.

Follow all the latest on the Cabinet reshuffle on our live blog.

Rishi Sunak has appointed former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary

His tenure in Downing Street ended on 13 July 2016 after the referendum on Britain’s future within the European Union (EU), which he had called, ended with a narrow win for the Leave campaign, prompting the pro-Remain PM to step aside.

Mr Cameron duly stood down as MP for Witney in Oxfordshire in September 2016 and has since spent his time residing in leafy Chipping Norton, writing his memoirs, helping out at the local food bank and otherwise pursuing opportunities as a lobbyist, occasionally to controversial effect.

But how can the former PM become foreign minister without being elected? We take a look below:

How can David Cameron return to government without being an MP?

The reason Mr Cameron can return to Cabinet despite no longer serving as an elected MP is that King Charles III has just handed him the “dignity of a Barony of the United Kingdom for life”, a hastily-awarded life peerage that entitles him to enter the House of Lords and therefore take up the role.

This is permitted because, under Britain’s unwritten constitution, it does not expressly say that a person must be an MP to become a minister. However, the ministerial code does stipulate that a secretary of state must be a member of the House of Commons or the Lords in order to qualify for the position.

Making Mr Cameron a peer, therefore, clears the path for him to serve as foreign secretary, although the process of formalising his title could take several weeks as it will require a number of legal documents, including letters patent and a writ of summons, to be drafted, submitted and approved.

Former prime ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph

However, even then the appointment is not without complications. As the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Stephen Flynn, was quick to point out on Monday, Mr Cameron will only be accountable to parliament’s select committees, rather than to the members directly, because he is not a member of the Commons.

Tory MP Sir Michael Fabricant was also among those complaining that Mr Cameron “won’t be accountable to MPs other than before a select committee” – noting that he will not be allowed to make statements, answer urgent questions, or take part in foreign office questions in the Commons.

In taking the role, Mr Cameron becomes the 15th former prime minister to serve in a later government led by someone else, following in the footsteps of former Tory PMs Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Neville Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour.

Another notable example of an unelected minister from recent history serving the British government is Lord David Frost, who was Brexit minister in the aftermath of the referendum and Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator to the EU before resigning from government in 2021.

What has Cameron said – and what has been the reaction?

Anticipating hostility given his recent criticism of Mr Sunak’s decision to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project, Mr Cameron acknowledged on Monday that he “may have disagreed with some individual decisions” by the current administration but hailed his new boss as “a strong and capable prime minister”.

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, he said: “We are facing a daunting set of international challenges, including the war in Ukraine and the crisis in the Middle East.

“At this time of profound global change, it has rarely been more important for this country to stand by our allies, strengthen our partnerships and make sure our voice is heard.”

Among those immediately critical of Mr Cameron’s appointment was the aforementioned Mr Flynn, who posted on X: ”Truly remarkable that during a time of huge international unrest, not least in Ukraine and Gaza, the House of Commons will not be able to directly scrutinise the work of the actual foreign secretary. The UK is not a serious country.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Layla Moran meanwhile cited the 2021 Greensill lobbying scandal as grounds for revoking his qualifying peerage.

“Bringing back a scandal-hit, unelected former prime minister who has been criticising Sunak’s government at every turn has the stench of desperation,” she said.

“There is not even the bottom of the barrel left for Sunak to scrape in the Conservative Party. David Cameron was at the heart of the biggest lobbying scandal of recent times. Handing him a peerage makes a mockery of our honours system. Cameron’s peerage should be blocked given his shady past.”

Pat McFadden, the Labour Party’s national campaign coordinator, observed: “A few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak said David Cameron was part of a failed status quo – now he’s bringing him back as his life raft.

“This puts to bed the prime minister’s laughable claim to offer change from 13 years of Tory failure.”

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