The future of David Davis
By Paul Goodman
"As for David Davis, dear boy...well, what can I say? Too many speeches, on too many subjects. Too many interventions. He's an ex-leadership contender, and a senior colleague. If he wants to come back, he really should be keeping his powder dry. It won't do at all." Those words, or others rather like them, tend to emerge from Conservative MPs these days when the subject of Davis comes up (at least, from those reasonably well-disposed to him; those less well-disposed are more hostile, and express themselves in terms ranging from contempt to alarm).
They're right to clock the range and frequency of Davis's interventions: child benefit, control orders, 14 days detention without charge, the need for a growth strategy, votes for prisoners...he's pronounced on all of them in recent weeks. He's busy in the Commons chamber and, as Jonathan's previously noted, is the seventh most rebellious Conservative MP. John Redwood - another senior, intelligent, clear-thinking, right-wing former leadership contender - intervenes more diplomatically, using his excellent blog as a means of communication to voters, and seldom taking to the airwaves and studios. What's Davis's game?
I declare an interest. I'm a friend of Davis, voted for him twice as leader, and had a hand in his 2005 leadership campaign, of which the full story is yet to be told. I like him, respect him, admire him, and am exasperated by him (the last two attitudes tend to battle for primacy). I would say that he was badly-advised to quit the Commons and the front bench to fight a quixotic by-election if he'd taken any advice other than his own. He'd have made a forceful Home Secretary, and his talents are a loss to the Government. At the same time, he's a lone wolf and perennial outsider, the temperamental opposite to smooth, insidery David Cameron.
It's a statement of the obvious to say that he's spiky rather than fluffy. His method of argument is rather pugnacious as well as highly rational, and there's a touch of the lecture hall as well as the battlefield about it. Some of those well-disposed to Davis say that the new intake doesn't care for him, by and large, and the 2005 one voted preponderantly against him in the last leadership contest. His older colleagues tended either to like him or loathe him. If he has a motto, it's probably Davis contra mundum. It would be impertinent (as well as useless) to try to probe the reasons, or delve to the roots of his character.
Instead, it's worth grasping that there isn't a game. Davis isn't trying to execute a master plan that would return him to the Conservative front bench and deliver him a Government car and red box. I say this not so much on the basis of conversations with "sources close to David Davis", but because the facts suggest it. Davis was a Whip, knows the system, and understands that waging backbench campaigns - or shooting his mouth off, whichever way you want to look at it - won't further endear him to the Prime Minister, who decided long ago that Davis was trouble, had his view confirmed by that by-election, and tends to stick to his judgements of people once he's made them.
In other words, Davis would probably come back if asked, but he almost certainly won't be (although he's on good terms with the Liberal Democrats, because of his views on civil liberties). Like Tony Blair in 2005 - and Cameron himself before too many years have passed - "he was the future once", but the harsh truth is that although he fought his 2005 as "Modern Conservative", he was by then part of an older generation of Tories, most of whom tend to be men, and is all the more so now. Then again, to say so is to suggest that the purpose of politicians is to get ahead, make a career, climb the pole, and quit when they fall (or are pushed) off it.
Such a view is wrong. There should be a place in the Commons for dissenters, heretics, bomb throwers, the awkward squad. Davis loves Parliament, and has written a book about it. He also likes running backbench campaigns. His first major one, a push during the late '80s to scrap the Dock Labour Scheme, was successful, so it would be wise not to write all his present ones off. And what's the world come to, after all, if an MP can't campaign for causes he believes in? If in doing so Davis is held to have joined the great gallery of British eccentrics, fades into obscurity or (worse) becomes a celebrity, so be it. Parliament should be about more than simply minding your manners.