Concerns over FCDO scrutiny after Cameron named foreign secretary

Peer and former PM will be unable to take questions from elected MPs in the House of Commons
Cameron leaves No.10 after being appointed foreign secretary. Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

10 Downing Street has defended its decision to appoint former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary in the face of complaints about a lack of accountability. Lord Cameron, as a peer, will not speak in the House of Commons.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak shocked Westminster yesterday by announcing Cameron would be replacing James Cleverly as foreign secretary in a cabinet reshuffle. Cleverly replaced Suella Braverman, who Sunak sacked as home secretary.

Because Cameron is no longer a sitting MP, the ex-PM and Tory Party leader has been given a peerage to enable him to sit in the House of Lords and serve in the cabinet.

"The prime minister has asked me to serve as his foreign secretary and I have gladly accepted," said Cameron after the announcement on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

"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."

However, MPs have raised alarm over what they describe as a lack of ability to hold Cameron to account – given he will be sitting in the unelected House of Lords, and therefore unable to take questions from elected MPs, including the shadow foreign secretary, in the House of Commons.

House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle said yesterday afternoon that he is seeking advice following the appointment amid concerns around scrutiny. 

"This is not the first time in recent years that a cabinet minister has been appointed in the House of Lords," Hoyle told MPs.

"But given the gravity of the current international situation, it is especially important that this House is able to scrutinise the work of the foreign, commonwealth and development office effectively.

“I have therefore commissioned advice from the clerks about possible options for enhancing [scrutiny] of the work of the foreign secretary when that post is filled by a member of the other House.

“I also look forward to hearing the government’s proposals on how the foreign secretary will be properly accountable to this House.”

When asked about concerns surrounding scrutiny of Cameron, the prime minister's spokesperson said there is a "longstanding precedent" for appointment and defended the decision. 

"We had Nicky Morgan, who was secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the Lords in 2019. Then Lord Mandelson served as business secretary under the last Labour government. Lord Carrington was foreign secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government.

"There'll be similiar arrangements in place as there were with these appointments". 

They said said Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell would stand in for Cameron in the House of Commons and answer questions on behalf of the foreign secretary. They added that Cameron would also be answerable to House of Commons committees.

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy criticised Cameron's appointment, arguing that that MPs will not be able to hold him to account. 

"David Cameron was a disastrous PM," said Lammy on Monday on X.

"This is a last gasp act of desperation from a government devoid of talent and ideas.

"Amid international crisis, Sunak has chosen an unelected failure from the past who MPs cannot even hold to account."

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, said Sunak had "destroyed all notion" of accountability. 

"It is deeply depressing that Britain's foreign secretary will face no accountability from elected members of parliament despite the pressing situations in the Middle East, Ukraine and many more regions around the world," Moran told CSW's sister title PoliticsHome

"Rishi Sunak stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised accountability, yet in one fell swoop, he has destroyed all notion of it."

Conservative MP Henry Smith, a member of the foreign affairs select committee, told PoliticsHome Cameron's appointment presented a significant “scrutiny problem”.

“I do think there's a bit of a constitutional issue here, certainly to be the first foreign secretary in the 21st century to not be accountable to the elected House directly is something that is worthy of coverage and discussion,” he said.

“I'm not diametrically opposed to a foreign secretary being in the House of Lords, but I do think it is a little bit unusual in this day and age. At such a time of international turmoil, frankly, and big issues – China, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, and many other things – I do think parliamentary scrutiny is particularly salient.”

He argued that because, as a peer, Cameron will not be subject to scrutiny in the House of Commons, he should attend the foreign affairs committee more frequently than usual.

“I think that's even more reason why he needs to appear before us in public Hansard-recordable meetings,” he said. “I'd expect him to be appearing at least once every two months.”

Former cabinet minister Lord David Frost said he did not believe being a cabinet minister and sitting in the Lords "works well".

"I was the most recent cabinet minister to be based in the House of Lords – though I was not running a whole department too," said Frost on X.

"I don't think it works well to have a lead cabinet minister answering questions and defending their department solely in the Lords.

"The Lords is not a fully party-political environment – nor should it be – and voters are owed proper political scrutiny. In our system, that can only happen in the Commons."

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said "many members of the public will be baffled and confused" why Cameron had be "parachuted into the job". 

“Today’s appointment thrusts the workings of parliament into the public eye as many will be wondering how someone can take up one of the most powerful positions in the land without any democratic process," said Hughes. 

“This highlights how outdated and unfit our current system is for a modern democratic country.

"The Lords urgently needs to be scrapped and replaced with a smaller elected chamber, which will give it a sustainable democratic basis and ensure that the people of this country, not politicians, decide who sits in parliament.”

The former PM's unexpected return to frontline politics comes after he resigned in 2016 when the the UK voted to leave the European Union. Cameron, who called the referendum, had supported Vote Remain. 

When asked if Cameron now believed in Brexit, the prime minister's press secretary said: “Yes, of course. We are making Brexit a success”.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt and Zoe Crowther are journalists for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

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