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Britain's former prime minister, David Cameron, left, leaves 10, Downing Street with Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, after being appointed Foreign Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle on Nov. 13, in London.Carl Court/Getty Images

Former prime minister David Cameron has returned to the front row of British politics seven years after a humiliating defeat in a referendum that led to the country leaving the European Union.

Mr. Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary on Monday in a massive cabinet overhaul by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is expected to call an election next year.

Several senior ministers were replaced, including home secretary Suella Braverman, who caused an outcry last week by describing pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches” and criticizing London’s Metropolitan Police force for being too soft on protesters.

But it was Mr. Cameron’s return to government that drew the most attention. He led the Conservative Party for 11 years and served as prime minister from 2010 to 2016. He won praise for modernizing the party, broadening its electoral base and championing non-traditional Tory issues such as gay marriage.

He’s remembered most for calling a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU and then campaigning hard for the country to remain inside the bloc. When voters backed leaving the EU by a narrow margin in June, 2016, Mr. Cameron announced his resignation and faced widespread derision for misreading the public mood about his leadership.

While he has remained largely out of the limelight since stepping down, he has criticized some of Mr. Sunak’s policies. He recently took the Prime Minister to task for cancelling a massive high-speed rail project called HS2, saying he had thrown away “a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Mr. Sunak has also been critical of his predecessors in a bid to position himself as a reformer for the upcoming election campaign. The Conservatives trail the Labour Party by as much as 20 percentage points, and Mr. Sunak, who took over as leader last year, has been trying to reshape his image. During the party conference last month he vowed to break free from past failures and the “30-year status quo.”

On Monday, Mr. Cameron acknowledged the differences between them but gave his full backing to Mr. Sunak. “Though I may have disagreed with some individual decisions, it is clear to me that Rishi Sunak is a strong and capable Prime Minister, who is showing exemplary leadership at a difficult time,” he said. He added that he hoped his experience would help the U.K. “ensure stability and security on the global stage.”

Mr. Sunak cleared the way for Mr. Cameron’s appointment by naming James Cleverly, the outgoing foreign secretary, as the new Home Secretary. He also appointed Mr. Cameron to the House of Lords to make him eligible to sit in cabinet. The last foreign secretary to serve in the position from the Lords was Peter Carrington, from 1979 to 1982. And the last former prime minister to become foreign secretary was Alec Douglas-Home, who held the post from 1970 to 1974.

Mr. Cameron’s political comeback drew sharp criticism from opposition politicians, who said it represented Mr. Sunak’s lack of confidence in his caucus. Several critics also noted that as a lord he will not be accountable to members of Parliament.

“Truly remarkable that during a time of huge international unrest, not least in Ukraine and Gaza, the House of Commons will not be able to directly scrutinize the work of the actual Foreign Secretary,” said Stephen Flynn, the leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster. “The U.K. is not a serious country.”

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Several Tory MPs also questioned Mr. Cameron’s lobbying interests and his close ties to China. After leaving office he tried to launch a £1-billion China-U.K. investment fund and as Prime Minister he fostered a “golden age’ of relations with Beijing.

“I am astonished at this appointment. It seems to send a signal to China that we are pursuing business with them at all costs and any costs,” said senior Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by China because of his outspoken criticism of its government.

Some Conservatives were also furious at the dismissal of Ms. Braverman, who has strong support among the right-wing of the party. Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns went so far as to call for Mr. Sunak to resign. “It is time for Rishi Sunak to go and replace him with a ‘real’ Conservative party leader,” she said Monday.

Many other Tories welcomed Mr. Cameron’s appointment and said it will help British interests abroad. “His immense experience on the international stage will be invaluable at this time of great uncertainty in our world,” said former prime minister Theresa May.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, questioned whether Mr. Cameron will have much effectiveness in his new post.

“Sure, it might mean that the new Foreign Secretary has slightly more name recognition and a bigger contacts book than his predecessor, but that doesn’t do anything to counter the fact that, in the wake of Brexit, Britain has less leverage than it used to,” Dr. Bale said.

He added that past controversies surrounding Mr. Cameron’s lobbying interests and his government’s austerity measures also make him less popular with the public. “Anyone who thinks this will help Sunak save the government from what looks like defeat next year is probably fooling themselves,” he said.

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