Ex-leader David Cameron makes shock return to UK government as Sunak rolls the dice with a shakeup

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LONDON (AP) — With his country mired in economic doldrums and his party trailing in the polls as an election nears, U.K. leader Rishi Sunak rolled the dice and shook up his government on Monday, appointing former Prime Minister David Cameron to the post of foreign secretary.

The move — called bold by Sunak's supporters and desperate by his critics — came in a Cabinet overhaul that saw Sunak jettison his powerful but controversial interior minister, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, in a bid to reset his faltering government.

The government hailed Cameron’s experience, acquired as U.K. leader between 2010 and 2016, and said Sunak was building “a strong and united team” with a shuffle that tips the government's balance from the Conservative Party's hard right to the center.

But Sunak is taking a risk in giving a new political life to the leader responsible for the most divisive issue Britain has faced in years: Brexit.

The Conservatives have been in power for 13 years, but opinion polls for months have put them 15 to 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party amid a stagnating economy, persistently high inflation, an overstretched health care system and a wave of public sector strikes.

Cameron's appointment surprised seasoned politics-watchers. It's rare for a non-lawmaker to take a senior government post, and it has been half a century since a former prime minister held a Cabinet job. The government said Cameron had been appointed to Parliament's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, alongside his new job.

“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.”

“I hope that six years as prime minister, 11 years leading the Conservative Party, gives me some useful experience and contacts and relationships and knowledge that I can help the prime minister to make sure we build our alliances, we build partnerships with our friends, we deter our enemies and we keep our country strong,” Cameron, 57, told broadcasters.

Cameron's foreign policy legacy is mixed. As prime minister, he backed a NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 that toppled Moammar Gadhafi and deepened that country's chaos. In 2013, he tried and failed to gain Parliament's backing for U.K. airstrikes against President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria. He also announced a short-lived “golden era” in U.K.-China relations shortly before that relationship soured.

And he will be forever remembered as the unwitting author of Brexit, a rupture that roiled Britain's politics, economy and place in the world. Cameron called a 2016 EU membership referendum, confident the country would vote to stay in the bloc. He resigned the day after voters opted to leave.

Bronwen Maddox, director of international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said Cameron “will bring undoubted strengths into the top team and to the U.K.’s relationships abroad,” where many will welcome him as “a heavyweight and moderate foreign secretary.”

“The concern must be, however, that these could be outweighed by the controversial legacy he brings too,” she said.

Sunak was a strong backer of the winning “leave” side in the referendum. But his decision to appoint Cameron and dismiss Braverman will likely infuriate the Conservative Party’s right wing and inflame tensions in the party that Sunak has sought to soothe. It could win back centrist voters dismayed by the party's lurch to the right, at risk of losing Brexit-backing working-class voters who switched support to the Conservatives from Labour during the last national election in 2019.

Prominent right-wing lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said sacking Braverman was “a mistake, because Suella understood what the British voter thought and was trying to do something about it.”

Sunak had been under growing pressure to fire Braverman — a hard-liner popular with the party's authoritarian wing — from one of the most senior jobs in government, responsible for handling immigration and policing.

Braverman, a 43-year-old lawyer, has become a leader of the party’s populist wing by advocating ever-tougher curbs on migration and a war on human rights protections, liberal social values and what she has called the “tofu-eating wokerati.” Last month she called migration a “hurricane” heading for Britain and described homelessness as “a lifestyle choice.”

In a highly unusual attack on the police last week, Braverman said London’s police force was ignoring lawbreaking by “pro-Palestinian mobs.” She described demonstrators calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war as “hate marchers.” She repeated the claims in an article for the Times of London that was not approved in advance by the prime minister’s office, as would usually be the case.

On Saturday, far-right protesters scuffled with police and tried to confront a large pro-Palestinian march by hundreds of thousands through the streets of London. Critics accused Braverman of helping to inflame tensions.

It was the final straw for Sunak, who fired her in a phone call on Monday morning.

Braverman said Monday that “it has been the greatest privilege of my life to serve as home secretary,” adding that she would “have more to say in due course.”

As home secretary, Braverman championed the government’s stalled plan to send asylum-seekers who arrive in Britain in boats on a one-way trip to Rwanda. A U.K. Supreme Court ruling on whether the policy is legal is due on Wednesday.

Critics say Braverman has been positioning herself for a party leadership contest that could come if the Conservatives lose power in an election expected next year.

In other changes, Former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly moved to the Home Office to replace Braverman.

Sunak also named Victoria Atkins as the new health secretary and moved her predecessor, Steve Barclay, to the environment portfolio. Most other senior ministers kept their jobs, including Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt.

Last month Sunak tried to paint his government as a force of change, saying he would break a “30-year status quo” that includes the governments of Cameron and other Conservative predecessors. Opposition politicians accused him of zig-zagging in desperation by bringing Cameron back.

“A few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak said David Cameron was part of a failed status quo. Now he’s bringing him back as his life raft,” said Labour lawmaker Pat McFadden.

As well as bringing about Brexit, Cameron's government imposed years of public-spending cuts after the 2008 global financial crisis that have frayed the country's welfare system and state-funded health service. After leaving office he was caught up in a scandal over his lobbying for Greensill Capital, a financial services firm that later collapsed.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Cameron's appointment was a sign of the government's “desperation."

“It’s difficult to believe that this is going to impress voters, whether they are convinced Brexiteers who despise David Cameron for being a remainer or convinced remainers who despise David Cameron for holding and losing a referendum," Bale said.