How Can David Cameron Be Foreign Secretary But Not An MP?

David Cameron leaving 10 Downing Street after being appointed foreign secretary.
David Cameron leaving 10 Downing Street after being appointed foreign secretary.

David Cameron leaving 10 Downing Street after being appointed foreign secretary.

Another day, another bizarre day for British politics: this time, the return of David Cameron. But the news left many people scratching their heads, not least because it’s been years since the former prime minister was active in frontline politics. So how is it technically possible?

What’s happened?

Cameron has been handed the job of foreign secretary as part of the major reshuffle of Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government.

His unlikely comeback was in effect at the expense of divisive home secretary Suella Braverman, who was sacked to be replaced by outgoing foreign secretary James Cleverly, with Cameron taking one of the “great offices of state” and will be the UK’s chief representative abroad.

But he’s not at MP, right?

Correct. The 57-year-old waltzed away from politics – quite literally – following the Brexit referendum, an election he called for and, since he campaigned to remain in the European Union, lost. He quit as prime minister and stepped down as MP for Witney at the same time.

He’s spent the intervening years away from the sharp end of politics, spending time in his £25,000 garden shed writing his memoirs and becoming embroiled in controversy over the Greensill lobbying affair.

Few expected Cameron to make a serious political return, not least since most of his generation has since left the stage following the churn of numerous elections since 2015.

So how can he sit in Sunak’s cabinet?

It is convention that a member of the cabinet has a seat in parliament, but that doesn’t mean they have to be an MP in the House of Commons. A place in the unelected House of Lords will suffice.

On Monday, the government confirmed Cameron would be handed a life peerage to sit in the less powerful upper chamber, and will be known as Lord Cameron (he was quickly dubbed “Lord Dave”, a knowing reference to his casual political style).

“I know it’s not usual for a prime minister to come back in this way,” the now-Lord Cameron acknowledged. “But I believe in public service.”

He has reportedly passed the vetting process and, since it’s a direct ministerial appointment, he’s in. As simple as that.

So has this happened before?

It’s rare but not unprecedented for a non-MP to take a senior government post.

Peter Carington, who became Lord Carrington, was Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary from when she took office in 1979 until 1982, when he resigned to take responsibility for Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

More recently, Peter Mandelson was appointed to the Lords in 2008 to serve as business secretary in Gordon Brown’s cabinet.

It has been half a century since a former prime minister held a cabinet job, when Alec Douglas-Home served as foreign secretary between 1970 and 1974.

How will Lord Cameron face scrutiny?

This is the trickier bit. Parliamentary rules mean lords are barred from entering the main chamber of the House of Commons, so we will not get to see “Lord Dave” being quizzed by MPs (unless the rules are changed).

Instead, he is likely to face direct questioning from members of the House of Lords, as junior ministers do on a regular basis. As the Institute of Government explains, there was historically no set mechanism for secretaries of state in the Lords to answer questions – that was until Mandelson’s appointment.

Back in the Commons, whichever junior minister is deemed to be Lord Cameron’s second-in-command is likely to do the heavy lifting during Foreign Office question time.