Cameron’s return: the ministerial appointments process needs reform

This Monday the country awoke to the news that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had finally sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman. This was followed by the arrival of none other than former Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street, sparking rumours of a return to government.

Cameron’s place in Sunak’s faltering administration was soon confirmed, making him the first former Prime Minister to return to government since Alec Douglas-Home served as foreign secretary (1970 to 1974).

The top line here is that the current crop of Conservative MPs have been ignored in favour of someone outside of parliament, resorting to a former prime minister. Cameron’s appointment shows the dearth of talent within the Conservative parliamentary ranks and further exposes a government running out of steam. With Sunak on track to leave Downing Street next year, this is a left-field gamble by a struggling PM. It also has the bonus for the government of deflecting attention from Suella Braverman’s appalling record, which would have been this week’s focus otherwise.

However, Cameron’s appointment also raises an interesting question about the mechanics of our democracy. Currently, ministers can only be appointed from the House of Commons and House of Lords. In the case of David Cameron, he has been appointed to the House of Lords purely in order to serve in cabinet.

We need to reform Parliament – Proportional Representation for the Commons and a democratic upper chamber – but there’s also a strong case for reforming the process for appointing ministers who do not serve in the House of Commons. The only way to do this now is to give someone a life peerage or stand down an MP and force a by-election. That’s an absurd way to run a country. Let this sink in: David Cameron has been made a legislator for the rest of his life as a result of this appointment by Sunak.

This route to government for non-MPs must change. As valid as it is to criticise the parliamentary Conservative party for their lack of talent, people outside of parliament should still be able to be brought into government to widen the talent-pool and bring in outside expertise to the executive. Some will disagree but it’s vital to bring in that outside talent where necessary.

With all that in mind, we need a mechanism where the prime minister can appoint outsiders without going through the unrepresentative, overflowing House of Lords. Such a mechanism needs safeguards to ensure proper accountability and scrutiny. An appointments process similar to that for the Cabinet of the United States would allow questioning from MPs and a vote in the Commons to approve any outside appointments. This would allow our legislature to hold to account any external executive appointments.

There’s also the question of day-to-day accountability. Having our foreign secretary as a member of the House of Lords means they will only be asked parliamentary questions by members of the Lords, rather than MPs, weakening Cameron’s accountability to the Commons. Any reform to bring in ministers outside parliament should ensure that they can attend the Commons to make statements and answer questions from MPs directly. This might unnerve traditionalists but having a strong link between government and the Commons is fundamental in a modern democracy where the Commons is the centre of legislative power.

The public recognise this too. A YouGov poll following Cameron’s appointment indicates that the majority of voters (excluding “don’t knows”) – whether Lib Dem, Labour or Conservative, Leave or Remain – are against department running ministers sitting in the House of Lords. This only adds to the case for reform.

The return of David Cameron ultimately shows the need to reform the House of Lords and the process of appointing government ministers. It’s frankly farcical that for a person not sitting in the Commons to become a minister, they are given a lifelong position as a legislator in the House of Lords. Cameron’s appointment shows that Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are looking backwards but it also exposes an opportunity to reform UK democracy and move our country forward.

* Richard Wood is a member of the Liberal Democrats. He sat on the Electoral Reform Society Council (2022 - 2023) and has been on the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform executive committee since 2021.

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4 Comments

  • Laurence Cox 15th Nov '23 - 12:26pm

    As I have already pointed out on another posting on here, Harold Wilson appointed Patrick Gordon-Walker as Foreign Secretary in 1964, when he was neither a Peer nor an MP, having lost his Smethwick seat in the General Election of that year. Gordon-Walker did later resign from the Cabinet but not until after he had lost the Leyton by-election the following year.

    It is relevant that there are no MPs from the time that Parliament is dissolved for a General Election until the election results are announced, yet Government Ministers do not cease to have responsibilities in this period.

    It is also misleading to write of Cameron that “he has been appointed to the House of Lords purely in order to serve in cabinet” because it is the convention that ex-Prime Ministers are automatically offered Peerages and Cameron could have have taken up that offer at any time after he left the Commons.

  • Mary Fulton 15th Nov '23 - 4:54pm

    The easiest way to hold the new Foreign Secretary to account by MPs would be to have him appear regularly as a witness to the Foreign Affairs committee. Indeed, he is likely to face a more rigorous grilling by MPs on a parliamentary committee than Ministers normally face during the farce of Ministerial Questions in the House of Commons

  • George Thomas 15th Nov '23 - 9:18pm

    It’s a clearer example with Zac Goldsmith but politicians voted out by the public should not be given some backdoor access to key positions in the Cabinet. My argument would be that only MP’s should be in the Cabinet – am aware it happened in 1964 but asbestos was once rife in building work but doesn’t make it right – as there should be clear risk that if you’re not doing a good job then you can lose your position, even if the overall party remains in power.

    I’m of the view that David Cameron held the Brexit referendum to solve an issue within his own party and that Theresa May’s refusal to reach out to opposition parties stopped a clear plan for Brexit. I don’t mind really what this move means for the Tory party – they’re too keen on putting their party before the UK, why should we join in by having that as central part of the analysis? – but the worst PM of recent times being back in power isn’t good for the UK.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Nov '23 - 7:58pm

    Perhaps it would be better if government ministers didn’t sit in Parliament at all. This is possible in a Parliamentary system; an example is the Netherlands, as documented by Bernard Aris on this very website. This approach has the advantage of full separation of powers — the Legislature is completely independent of the Executive, with no payroll vote so MPs are able to act much more independently than they are in our system. In the Dutch system a party that forms part of the governing coalition can oppose a government policy in Parliament.
    If an MP is appointed government minister, then they would have to resign their seat, presumably precipitating a by-election under our present electoral system. This would look like the ministerial by-elections of old days, except that the purpose would be to enable the member to leave Parliament to take up the government role, rather than to seek approval from the electorate for staying in Parliament to do so. And it wouldn’t matter so much who won the by-election, although governments would be reluctant to appoint MPs from marginal seats in case they lost the resulting by-election.

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