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David Cameron

The comeback kids: 7 British Prime Ministers who returned to government

David Cameron | Image: Image Credit: Clickpics / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on the 30th September 2014

With the news that former Prime Minister David Cameron is to return to government as Foreign Secretary, we take a look at other Prime Ministers who came back from the political cold.

For some British prime ministers, leaving office was nothing more than a temporary career blip. Meet the politicians who made some of the most dramatic comebacks in political history.

1. Stanley Baldwin

Son of a wealthy business magnate, Stanley Baldwin was no slouch himself, serving as Conservative prime minister not once, not twice, but three times. In 1923, he took the top job for the first time when his predecessor, Bonar Law, resigned due to ill health after 211 days in office (one of the shortest PM tenures ever).

Baldwin promptly called a general election, hoping to secure a solid mandate from the British people. Instead, it resulted in the first ever Labour government. He became leader of the opposition, but a lack of confidence in the Labour administration led to yet another general election the very next year, which Baldwin won in a landslide.

During his second tenure, Baldwin had to deal with national strikes and rising unemployment, and the 1929 election saw the nation switch back to Labour. However, he became PM yet again in 1935, just in time to deal with the political earthquake of Edward VIII’s abdication.

2. Ramsey MacDonald

The 1923 election which toppled Baldwin led to the premiership of Ramsey MacDonald, the first ever Labour prime minister. But the administration relied on a collaboration with the Liberal Party (a forerunner of the Liberal Democrats), and its precarious nature triggered a 1924 election which MacDonald lost decisively.

Cut to 1929, and MacDonald was in the top job once again after another general election. But then came an economic crisis caused by the Great Depression, forcing MacDonald to create a new, coalition government alongside the Conservatives and Liberals.

This was regarded as a shameful betrayal by most of his supporters, and the fact that the coalition went on to demolish Labour in the next general election only made MacDonald look more of a traitor. His trajectory from trailblazing Labour hero to fallen idol has been discussed and debated by political historians ever since.

3. Winston Churchill

Churchill became prime minister during the Second World War, rousing the nation with his oratory and grit. His popularity meant the Conservatives felt confident they would win the 1945 general election, held just a couple of months after the end of the war.

Instead, there was a landslide victory for Labour, led by Clement Attlee. This was partly due to the Conservatives poor campaign, with Churchill notoriously claiming that Labour would need ‘some form of Gestapo’ to enforce its left-wing policies.

But Churchill remained a significant political figure in opposition, coining the Cold War phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ in a 1946 speech. Years later, in 1951, he was once again thrust into 10 Downing Street following a Conservative election victory. Ageing and suffering with ill health, he was a less vital figure this time around and resigned in 1955.

4. Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson, famed for his ever-present pipe and down-to-earth demeanour, became Labour leader in 1963 after the sudden death of the previous leader Hugh Gaitskell (just as Tony Blair would become leader after the sudden death of John Smith decades later). Wilson led Labour to victory in the election the following year, overseeing a time of liberal reforms such as the decriminalising of homosexuality.

However, despite riding high in the polls, Labour lost the 1970 election to Ted Heath’s Conservatives. Some even suggested England’s defeat in the World Cup that year was partly responsible for Wilson’s fall.

Carrying on as Labour leader, Wilson regained the keys to Number 10 following the 1974 election, and his second tenure featured the original UK referendum on membership of what was then called the European Communities. However, Wilson was exhausted by politics and stunned the nation by abruptly resigning in 1976.

5. Benjamin Disraeli

Disraeli was an unlikely icon of Victorian Conservatism. Jewish by birth and a bohemian by temperament, he was mired in debt at an early age, suffered a breakdown, and could well have spiralled into oblivion. Instead, he was propelled to success by the force of his wit and personality, writing novels, winning a seat in Parliament and marrying into money.

He became prime minister in 1868 when previous incumbent Lord Derby retired. Disraeli famously declared he had ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole’, but that very year he lost the general election to his arch-rival William Gladstone of the Liberal Party.

In opposition, Disraeli was a formidable foe, once comparing the Liberal front bench to ‘a range of exhausted volcanoes’. The 1874 election saw him return to power for a tenure marked by significant foreign policy dealings and Disraeli’s close, rather flirty friendship with Queen Victoria. However, the aging Disraeli was again ousted by the Liberals in the 1880 election, dying the following year.

6. William Gladstone

Unlike the charming raconteur Disraeli, William Gladstone was a stern and puritanical man who didn’t enjoy the personal affection of Queen Victoria. He was, however, a political giant who served no less than four non-consecutive terms as prime minister.

By contrast with his great political rival, Gladstone was an establishment figure from the start as an Eton-educated son of a wealthy slave-owning businessman. He became prime minister after beating Disraeli in the 1868 election, introducing a series of reforms affecting everything from the British Army to the Church of Ireland.

The Liberal Party was trounced in the 1874 election, and Gladstone stepped down as leader. However, his barnstorming campaigning during the 1880 election played such a part in swinging things the Liberals’ way that he ascended to the leadership again, becoming prime minister for the second time. Foreign policy debacles, including the disastrous Siege of Khartoum, hurt his reputation and he resigned in 1885.

Remarkably, however, he became prime minister twice more, in 1886 and 1892, ultimately resigning at the grand age of 84.

7. David Cameron

Following the defeat of the Brexit referendum in July 2016, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, an abrupt end to his six-year premiership. Stepping down as an MP in September that year, many would have assumed that this marked the end of his political career.

However, in a shock reshuffle, Cameron was invited back into government by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, following the sacking of Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary, replacing James Cleverley who became Home Secretary.

Cameron who is no longer an elected politician has been made a Baron for life by King Charles and will join the House of Lords. He is the first non-MP to serve as Foreign Secretary, since Lord Carrington who served from 1979 to 1982. But he is not the first ex-Prime Minister to return to government as Foreign Secretary. Before Cameron, Alex Douglas-Home who was Prime Minister from 1963-4, returned as Foreign Secretary under Ted Heath from 1970-1974, and before that Arthur Balfour who served as Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, returned as Foreign Secretary in 1916 under David Lloyd George.