🔒 Political phoenixes: David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s remarkable resurgence – Adrian Wooldridge

In a political arena often unforgiving of second chances, the remarkable comebacks of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in Britain are rewriting the rules. Both once ousted in the aftermath of tumultuous events, Cameron now thrives as the Foreign Secretary, while Clegg enjoys a soaring career as the President for Global Affairs at Meta Platforms Inc. The lesson? Moderation pays dividends for post-political careers. Yet, their resurgence also raises questions about the global establishment’s fixation on performance over substance and the persistent disconnect with populist sentiments.

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By Adrian Wooldridge

Britain has seldom been friendly to second acts in life, particularly from politicians, but it is witnessing two very remarkable ones at the moment. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were the look-alike wunderkinds of British politics: At 43, Cameron was the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812; and Clegg, born a year after Cameron, was the first member of the Liberal family (his party, the Liberal Democrats, had its roots in the old Liberal Party) to get near real power since the fall of Lloyd George in 1922.

Then everything fell apart. Cameron lost the referendum on membership in the European Union — a vote he had foolishly called to solve a problem of internal party discipline — and left Downing Street in disgrace, with the pound crashing and the country in turmoil. A survey of historians ranked him third from the bottom of British premiers above only Anthony Eden and Alec Dougles-Home (both fellow Etonians and Tories). Cameron’s attempts to reinvent himself as a businessman knocked more nails in his coffin—he tried unsuccessfully to launch a £1 billion ($1.3 billion) UK-China investment fund and acted as a lobbyist for the dodgy financier Lex Greensill.

Though it took place in two stages, Clegg’s fall from grace was equally complete. He lost his position as leader of the Liberal Democrats when his party was reduced to eight seats from 57 in the 2015 election, and then he lost his parliamentary seat in the 2017 election to an eccentric bar manager who is now in prison for fraud. The former deputy prime minister was reduced to a pathetic figure — publishing desperate pamphlets such as “How to Stop Brexit and Make Britain Great Again” and marching for a rerun of the referendum.

The two men are both back in the purple, though they are no longer friends. Cameron (now Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton) has recently completed his first 100 days as foreign secretary to general applause. Politicians and mandarins all note that he appears born to the role — he dominates every room that he enters, he masters his briefs and speaks fluently, and he seems to be able to open every door he wants. The Foreign Office has not been this full of itself for years.

Clegg (now Sir Nick) is also walking on air as president for global affairs for Meta Platforms Inc. — that is the political representative of a trillion-dollar global behemoth that serves 3 billion monthly active Facebook users, 2 billion Instagram users and 2 billion WhatsApp users. A long profile by Tom McTague paints a portrait of the politician turned business titan. Clegg earns an estimated $15 million a year, lives in an $8 million house in Chiswick, spends most of his life on planes and is greeted like a visiting dignitary wherever he goes. If Cameron is “prime minister for foreign affairs,” Clegg is “foreign minister for Meta,” arguably the more powerful job.

The most obvious lesson from these two tales of resurrection is that moderation pays: If you want to have a career after politics, it’s better to cling to the middle of the spectrum. To be sure, Cameron and Clegg partly owe their comebacks to good fortune — Cameron to the fact that Rishi Sunak wanted a prominent One Nation Tory who could counterbalance the right and shore up his support in the shires, and Clegg to the fact that Mark Zuckerberg needed someone who could “speak European,” as McTague puts it. But the fact that they were moderates certainly helped.

The list of moderate politicians who have been rehabilitated is a long one. Tony Blair is a multimillionaire whose Tony Blair Institute now employs more than 450. George Osborne is an investment banker, chair of the British Museum and star podcaster along with his former Labour sparring partner, Ed Balls. David Miliband, a former Labour foreign secretary, is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, based in New York, and a fixture at international conferences.

Radicals have a harder time of it. Boris Johnson is earning good money for his (extraordinarily thin) columns in the Daily Mail and for public speaking, but he is regarded as anathema by big public and private institutions. Liz Truss — a Remainer turned Brexiteer — is moving ever further to the fringes of politics: She recently appeared at a gathering of right-wing activists in Washington where she denounced “the deep state” and sat in silence when Steve Bannon praised Tommy Robinson, a far-right British agitator. The mood in Tory ranks is so frantic in part because many middle-aged MPs who spent the past four years undermining prime ministers and pushing for hard Brexit are realizing that global organizations are not crying out for their services.

This all sounds encouraging. Surely, we want more high-flyers to see a political career as a valuable part of their CV. But there is also a dark side to our story. These twin resurrections underline the extent to which we continue to overvalue performance over substance. Both Cameron and Clegg are what the Texans call “all hat and no cattle.” They are both excellent public performers — self-confident and fluent — but they are both less successful when it comes to judgment. Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit was one of the worst decisions made by a British prime minister. Clegg ruined his political career by conceding so much to the Tories that his own party turned against him.

These revivals also underline how little the global establishment has learned from the rise of populism. Brexit was not just a temper tantrum by a foolish population but a demand from millions of people for profound change. The majority of British voters were disillusioned with middle-of-the-road politics that gave them no choice between identikit politicians (Cameron and Clegg were both educated at elite private schools and Oxbridge) peddling a combination of liberal economics and liberal social policies.

The Brexiteers have proved too incompetent to slake the demand for a different type of politics. They’ve now abandoned “levelling up” as too expensive and taken refuge in new monsters such as the “deep state” to make up for their lack of accomplishments. But it would be a mistake to treat this as a license to return to the rejected policies of the old regime.

The success of Cameron and Clegg and so many other middle-of-the-road politicians suggests the emergence of an unstable political order: one in which the global establishment continues to pursue its old policies as if populism doesn’t exist and the masses then have no alternative but to engage in periodic Brexit- or Trump-style revolts against the status quo.

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