David Cameron’s journey back to centre of world stage

Lord David Cameron is heading to Washington for a flurry of meetings with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders in an effort to try and help unblock US funding for Ukraine.

The UK foreign secretary, who will also hold talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will call on Congress to approve the extra $60bn in supplementary funding for Kyiv that has been blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

“Success for Ukraine and failure for Putin are vital for American and European security,” Cameron said ahead of the trip, which will also focus on the Middle East and the UK’s plan to continue licensing arms exports to Israel.

He will start the trip on Monday with a visit to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Florida. He will see Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday in Washington, with other key US politicians scheduled for Wednesday.  

The meetings come as Cameron has once again become a high-profile figure on the international stage less than six months after accepting Rishi Sunak’s surprise offer to become foreign secretary.

Senior British diplomats say he has brought “weight and heft” to the Foreign Office, paying tribute to his work ethic and arguing he has injected fresh confidence and ideas into British foreign policy.

Concerns remain around his past links with the collapsed finance group Greensill Capital, however, and his private business activities in China.

“He’s still got questions to answer about his financial relationship with Greensill and China more widely. He’s said sunlight is the best disinfectant. Let’s have some sunlight on these matters,” said Neil Coyle, a Labour MP and member of the Commons foreign affairs committee.

After taking up the appointment as foreign secretary last autumn, Cameron told the BBC his links to Greensill had been “dealt with by the Treasury select committee and other inquiries at the time”, adding that the matter was “in the past”. 

And despite this, many believe Cameron has managed an extraordinary rehabilitation of his reputation.

After 100 days in office, he released a slick “walking and talking” short video on social media platform X detailing his 36 visits to 26 different countries and listing his department’s activities spanning diplomacy, security, aid and trade since he took up his post.

“On the substance, he’s improved the position on a number of issues, notably on Gaza, where he’s trying to move things along on humanitarian aid and applying a sensible balance of pressure on Israel,” said Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office.

“He’s given a more distinctive voice to British foreign policy on this, which was frankly parroting American foreign policy before,” he added.

Cameron floated the idea of the UK recognising a Palestinian state as part of the peace process, and has taken a notably harder line in his criticism of Israel than some cabinet colleagues — moves that have been welcomed by some Tory MPs but have angered others.

At the weekend, he issued a warning to Israel that Britain’s support was “not unconditional”, saying there was “no doubt where the blame lies” for the killing of seven international aid workers last week, and hitting out at the “dire” situation in the Gaza Strip — including the “prospect of famine”.

His tone contrasted sharply with that of UK deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden, who stressed that Israel had faced “trauma” in the October 7 attacks by Hamas, was pursuing a “legitimate” war and was “legitimately able to receive arms exports” from Britain.

Downing Street insisted the government was “completely united” after eyebrows were raised at the difference of emphasis. Asked whether Dowden had been referring to Cameron when he claimed some people appeared to “relish” the opportunity to criticise Israel, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said: “I reject that completely.”

Many figures in the development sector have also welcomed Cameron’s return, alongside that of international development minister Andrew Mitchell, who oversaw the portfolio when Cameron was prime minister.

As a strong advocate of the UN’s goals on sustainable development while prime minister, Cameron has emphasised the importance of international aid after Boris Johnson, when prime minister, slashed aid funding from Cameron’s ringfenced 0.7 per cent of UK gross national income to 0.5 per cent.

While Cameron’s legacy as prime minister is inextricably bound up with Brexit — he called the referendum on the UK’s membership of the bloc and led the losing Remain campaign in 2016 — he has worked closely with his EU counterparts since returning to office, despite the initial scepticism that greeted his appointment in some European capitals.

On Monday he published a joint article with French foreign minister Stéphane Séjourné celebrating the Entente Cordiale agreed between the two nations 120 years ago. Last December co-wrote an article with his German counterpart Annalena Baerboek calling for a sustained ceasefire in Israel.

“He doesn’t have any neuroses about working with his European counterparts to bring influence to bear where possible,” said Olivia O’Sullivan, director of the UK in the World programme at think-tank Chatham House.

However, while she praised his “genuine personal skill” and “facility with communications” — including on social media — she said the UK’s foreign policy had lacked any “real strategic underpinning” since Brexit.

“He’s operating outside of a clear broader foreign policy strategy from the government,” O’Sullivan said, arguing that a robust stance on Ukraine and a tilt to the Indo-Pacific — key elements of the UK’s active foreign policy in recent years — did not adequately replace the UK’s pre-Brexit role as a bridge between the US and Europe.

After leaving Downing Street and before entering the Foreign Office, Cameron’s private business activities linked to China — including his attempt to raise money from an arm of the Chinese state — raised eyebrows, particularly among China hawks.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory foreign secretary, acknowledged that Cameron “does have a bit of personal history” on China as a key architect of the so-called golden era of Anglo-Chinese relations in the middle of the last decade.

However, Rifkind insisted that “by the time he became the foreign secretary, the situation was very different. There has been continuity in UK government policy [on China] before and since Cameron took office.”

Cameron has had to get used to a “downgrade” in both the transport options and resources available to him as foreign secretary, government insiders said.

But one ally highlighted that he still enjoyed a high level of access to foreign prime ministers and presidents, remarking that “everyone wants to meet him”.

Cameron’s status as a peer with a seat in the House of Lords has sparked resentment among many MPs, including some Conservatives, who are infuriated he is barred from being able to answer questions at the despatch box in the Commons.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has accused him of “dodging scrutiny”.

The government is currently examining a suggestion made by parliament’s procedure committee that Cameron could come to the bar of the House of Commons — the boundary of the chamber beyond which no one but MPs can go — to face scrutiny from elected representatives.

With opinion surveys showing the Conservatives trailing Labour by around 20 points ahead of a general election expected later this year, officials expect Cameron’s stint at the Foreign Office to be a short one.

Galvanised by “knowing he’s only got a year in post”, he is determined to make the most of it, according to friends. 

He quipped to one recently: “Turns out that being prime minister for six years is quite a good apprenticeship for foreign secretary.”

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