Tories’ Cameron comeback has uncanny Australian echo

David Cameron returns to British politics


In the days of Empire, Britons called Australia their exact opposite, or the antipodes. 

But an Australian closely watching British politics this week – and the surprise appointment of former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary – might see a mirror image.

Cameron’s comeback, with perhaps a little more than a year left to run on the term of a government in trouble, reminds of Bob Carr’s drafting to the equivalent role towards the end of the Gillard government. 

But the resonances run much deeper and reflect a decade-long Australianisation of British politics. 

Cameron, who is not an elected MP, will be installed in the House of Lords to take up his new position. He was recalled after current PM Rishi Sunak axed firebrand minister Suella Braverman for publishing provocative opinions on Palestine protesters and homeless people.

But the real cause of Braverman’s departure was likely a much bigger fight that looms before the deeply polarised Conservatives. 

She and her supporters are awaiting a court decision due this week over the Sunak government’s plans to deport to Rwanda asylum seekers who arrive by boat across the Channel.

Sound familiar?

It might remind of the infamous 2001 Australian election campaign that John Howard fought on “boat people”. It led to a policy that had asylum seekers deported to Nauru. 

Though two decades apart, both policies were developed by governments overseen by the same political strategist: Sir Lynton Crosby, known to the poms as the Wizard of Oz. 

Braverman once said seeing deportations to Rwanda would be her political “dream”.

The UK Supreme Court will rule this week on whether it can be realised, after an earlier version of the policy was scotched by the European Court of Human Rights. 

Braverman wants to quit that human rights treaty.

Bob Carr

Cameron’s new role reminded of Bob Carr’s drafting into the Gillard government. Photo: AAP

Critically, Sunak does not. The British PM and other Conservative moderates warn that doing so would risk Britain’s international reputation.

But the idea has traction with the Tory base and some Conservative MPs, at least one of whom has suggested Braverman’s resignation could set up a future battle for the party’s leadership.

It’s a cause being pushed hardest by a new addition to Britain’s public sphere: GB News, a right-wing “outrage” network running hard on what it calls the migrant crisis. 

In another coincidence, the network is run by Australian TV executive Angelos Frangopoulos, who expanded Sky News Australia’s stable of right-wing opinion hosts and turned the network into a powerful influence over the Liberal Party.

Former PM Malcolm Turnbull attributed a conservative revolution in the Liberals under his leadership to the influence of Sky’s “angertainment”, which lured MPs to the right of politics with a “siren song of populism”.

An adviser to former British PM Boris Johnson, who has just signed a major deal to host a show on GB News, heralded the Rwanda boat plan as an “ideal wedge issue”. 

Dividing an opposition party’s support base with a highly charged and all-consuming issue has been the hallmark of Crosby’s political strategy. 

Johnson once described how Crosby had described to him a related tactic to be employed when a government was on the losing side of an argument: Throwing a dead cat on the table.  

“The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’,” he wrote. “They will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Former prime minister Scott Morrison’s attempt to make transgender rights an issue at the May 2022 federal election may have been a perfect example of a tactic pilloried by the press. 

But while it might not have swung the election, a study published last month suggests it worked as intended.

Posts about transgender athletes accounted for nearly 10 per cent of all voters’ interactions with Australian election news on Facebook, putting it in second place and only slightly behind housing affordability. 

Declaring that a man is a man and a woman is a woman was also a key element of a recent Sunak speech.

But the parachuting of Cameron into his cabinet shows there are some places Sunak will not go. The Financial Times called Cameron’s return a “shift towards the centre ground that alarmed some on the right of the Conservative Party.”

How the two wings of the party resolve their differences may not be seen until after an election defeat. 

For the Australian Liberals, in opposition and halfway through a term of Parliament following their own election loss, their conservative wing is firmly in control under leader Peter Dutton.  

Opinion in the party is divided over whether that is a good thing.

In a documentary reviewing the Coalition’s decade in power that aired on Sky this week, Liberal moderate and former minister Christopher Pyne said they had to recapture the political centre.

British audiences might catch the rerun. 

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