Few of the friends that contemplated David Cameron’s leadership bid expected anything other than a Davis victory. Their hearts wanted ‘Dave’ to win but their heads told them that 2005 was really about positioning for another battle, four or five years’ time. There were times when some friends almost threw in the towel. Cheerleaders at The Times lost heart in the middle of September and used a leader column to suggest that it might soon be wise to team up with a bigger beast. Simultaneously some of Cameron’s closest lieutenants were complaining about their candidate’s unwillingness to take risks.
David Cameron’s leadership hopes were transformed just days later. Two compelling performances – first at his campaign launch and then the now famous Blackpool speech – transformed his public standing. He was no longer the little boat at the mercy of powerful currents and the swell of larger craft; he was the supertanker candidate on course for victory. But Mr Cameron was far from being the sole architect of his victory. Michael Howard and David Davis also played very considerable roles.
HOW DAVIS-ITES PLANNED TO NO-CONFIDENCE MICHAEL HOWARD
A few days before May 5th’s General Election Michael Howard learnt that supporters of David Davis were beginning to collect the signatures that would trigger a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. If he hadn’t resigned by the weekend after polling day, the Sunday newspapers would be full of talk of an impending challenge to his leadership.
So, on 6th May Michael Howard did indeed announce his resignation, but it was going to be a very long goodbye. He engineered an election process that fatally damaged David Davis’ hopes. Allies of Michael Howard insist that his timetable reflected a straightforward wish to avoid the party rushing to the wrong judgment, as appeared to happen after 1997 and 2001. The Davis people believed that this was a deliberate, Machiavellian scheme to destroy their candidate’s chances. At the time Davis was thought to be the darling of the grassroots and the exercise in disenfranchisement appeared to be an anti-Davis manoeuvre.
An immediate election would have given Davis an almost certain victory because Cameron would not have enjoyed the party conference platform and Davis would have hit the ground running from day one. Instead Michael Howard gave Cameron, Osborne and Fox big promotions. The Davis camp took to calling them Howard’s Children.
The longest leadership election in history gave Team Davis the opportunity to make the mistakes that many of his enemies expected of it. The contest came to resemble an American-style primary where the message discipline and team-building skills of candidates are tested over many months. A gutsy display by David Davis in the final weeks of the campaign was too little and too late to compensate for earlier complacency and strategic misjudgments.
This was David Davis’ third leadership race. He had finished fourth in 2001 and, just as the starting gun was about to fire, he had pulled out of the race to succeed Iain Duncan Smith. That 2003 departure had led to the unopposed coronation of Michael Howard and there were early hopes in the Davis camp that their man could also ascend to the Tory throne by unanimous acclamation.
HOW DAVIS' PAST CAUGHT UP WITH HIM
Few beyond the tight group surrounding Mr Davis believed in this coronation scenario. Davis had accumulated many enemies over the years. His past rough treatment of the press would hurt him badly at the Blackpool conference. Jeremy Paxman accurately noted that the Whips’ Office had once selected him as their ‘shit of the year’. It is not an overstatement to say that allies of each of the party’s previous three leaders held David Davis in contempt. They were slow to organise against him at first. They were reluctant to get on the wrong side of the likely next Tory leader but they pounced after olive branches had been rejected.
Some of the party’s most prominent right-wing MPs became Davis’ most vociferous opponents. The fracturing of the Conservative Right explains why this is the first time since Ted Heath beat Reggie Maudling, in 1965, that its perceived candidate has lost the leadership election.
Some of the divisions on the right reflect the new divisions in politics. Where the right once united against communism, trade unions and big government it is now divided on drugs, family life and homeland security. Much of the socially conservative right look to Iain Duncan Smith’s vision of social justice and have become separated from those right-wingers who cannot see beyond the narrow vision of core vote issues. The compassionate right found common cause with Cameron’s insistence that a broader agenda is vital for success.
Some of the sourest divisions are deeply personal, however. David Davis brought those divisions into the open. Allies of Hague felt that William never got Davis’ backing when it mattered most. Some of the Eurosceptic right had never forgiven Davis for his role in securing passage of the Maastricht Treaty. Loyalists to the IDS regime remembered the role that Davis’ lieutenants played in the downfall of their man. Those resentments might have been forgiven if Davis had not turned his back on the right’s initial peace offerings.
David Davis hoped to be the big tent candidate - elected by a broad cross-section of the parliamentary party in order to become an effective leader of it. He did not want to be seen as a factional candidate of the right and actively wooed the likes of Damian Green, John Maples, Ian Taylor and his biggest of all converts, David Willetts. Ironically, most of their friends on the left never followed them.
HOW LIAM FOX RAIDED DAVIS' EXPOSED RIGHT FLANK
With David Davis’ right flank fully exposed Liam Fox saw his opportunity and seized it with ruthless determination. The Shadow Foreign Secretary recruited key right-wingers like John Hayes to his team. Hayes had been a leading organiser of IDS’ successful 2001 campaign and had been furious at the way Davis had marginalised the right.
Dr Fox blanket bombed David Davis’ right flank. A commitment to leave the EPP was thrown as red meat to the Eurosceptics. Opposition to abortion and support for marriage delighted the social conservatives. An uncompromising position on Iraq won over a few national security hawks. The ‘broken society’ message appealed to the compassionate conservatives.
Fox outgunned Clarke in the first round and the defeated Clarke-ites flocked to Cameron, regarding Davis’ appeal to them that he was the most Europhile of the remaining candidates more with derision than contempt.
Liam Fox’s supporters believe that their candidate would have given David Cameron a tougher fight in the final round. That is also the clear view of the Cameron camp. The Cameroons saw David Davis as a wounded animal by the end of the parliamentary voting. Fox, in contrast, had momentum behind him. Team Fox are convinced that tactical voting by Cameron supporters kept their candidate out of the run-off. Team Cameron deny any tactical voting but all camps agree that David Cameron secured five or six fewer votes than expected. There is a rich folklore attached to the recollections of Tory leadership elections and tactical voting by Cameron-supporting MPs for Davis has joined the mist of fact and fiction.
If that tactical voting hadn’t happened there might not have been a vote of grassroots members. Some of David Davis’ supporters wanted a personal and collective exit strategy if Cameron hit the 100 mark in the final round of parliamentary voting. Some of his supporters remembered his 2003 submission to Michael Howard and it seemed like déjà vu. One MP, Christopher Chope, demanded without success that Davis sign a ‘I will fight on’ declaration as his price for voting for him. Rumours of a Davis capitulation gathered force after Andrew Mitchell and Damian Green, when challenged by Chope and Eric Forth, had both failed to squash speculation. Liam Fox could hardly believe his luck. Fox’s campaign team told MPs that the good doctor was the only candidate capable of ensuring that grassroots members would get the vote that so many people had battled so hard to defend. A lack of acumen by Davis’ team had let him down again.
But David Davis did narrowly prevail over Fox and he took the contest to the country. His opponent – David Cameron - was by then the hot favourite. If Davis had pipped Fox in the centre-right primary David Cameron had overwhelmed Ken Clarke for the hearts and minds of the party’s pragmatists and soft left.
It had not looked like that a month earlier. Through the middle of September Ken Clarke had eclipsed David Cameron. Cameron had taken an unfortunately-timed holiday just as the Tory jungle’s biggest surviving beast burst on to the stage. The Mail showered the former Chancellor with favourable coverage and The Telegraph gave him Hello-style treatment. Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson gushed all over Clarke in an interview headlined “Women love him, so do the young - and he scares the pants off Labour”.
It would not be the last time that the right-wing press proved to be peripheral players in this contest. The Mail’s campaign to elect Clarke failed again. There was no consistent line at The Sun. The Telegraph followed opinion within the Conservative Party rather than leading it.
The Clarke bandwagon started slowing, however, at the moment David Willetts made his surprise endorsement of David Davis. Ken had actively courted Willetts’ support and his “defection” – as the Clarke-ites saw it – was a body blow. More days passed and Clarke failed to pick up new parliamentary endorsements. He had started his campaign very late and many MPs who had supported his 1997 and 2001 bids had already journeyed to other candidates. Taylor for Davis. Luff for Cameron. Heald for Fox. None returned home.
Few of the new MPs knew Clarke or shared his worldview. These were the candidates who politically schooled during the lean years when the party had moved decisively in a Eurosceptic direction. That direction had been vindicated by events. New MPs in their thirties and forties were not inclined to back a man who had weighed against those changes and had the whiff of the ancien regime. Clarke didn’t even try hard to woo them. Ken was used to the fawning attention of the metropolitan media. He only had to get out of bed and Fleet Street’s finest would be there to cover the occasion. He was not ready to invest his precious time in convincing sceptics of his self-evident merits.
X-FACTOR CAMERON FIGHTS BACK
Perhaps sensing Clarke’s problems David Cameron stirred to life a week before party conference. He launched a high-stakes attack on his opponents’ weaknesses. David Davis’ approach was “political suicide”. Ken Clarke’s Europhilia amounted to “national suicide”. John Bercow, then cohabiting with Ann Widdecombe in the Clarke camp, retaliated with a class war attack on David Cameron but it bounced off. Bercow like Alan Duncan, who had told a newspaper that Cameron that wasn’t ready to play with the big boys, later inelegantly clambered onto the increasingly fast Cameron bandwagon.
It was at that stage that George Osborne, Cameron’s campaign manager, chose to act decisively. The faltering campaign gambled £10,000 on a campaign launch for the Thursday before the party conference. This was to be a glittering performance.
For a moment the Cameroons’ hearts sank when they learnt that David Davis had opted to launch on the same day but, with a adroitness beyond the Davis team’s imagination they realised that this juxtaposition was to their man’s advantage; the most public of opportunities to re-present their man as Davis’ likeliest challenger. David Cameron spoke without notes and with an authority that belied his years. He reprised the And Theory Of Conservatism. The And Theory said that it wasn’t necessary to ditch traditional beliefs in order to offer a broader appeal. It was possible to offer tax relief and greater public service investment. It was possible to be Eurosceptic and care for the hungry of Africa and the compassionate Tory right swooned.
Davis flopped at his campaign launch. The tired staging matched the tired website. The unflattering comparison with David Cameron’s launch was a curtain-raiser to the drama that would unfold in Blackpool.
My straw polls tell me that few Tory members can now remember very much of what David Cameron actually said in his Blackpool speech. What they can remember is that they liked him from that moment on. They weren’t convinced by great arguments. They fell in love. He is the kind of man that mature Tory ladies have always hoped that their daughter might bring home. By contrast, the same ladies saw the Davis team as the kind of bunch of they wouldn’t want their sons to fall in with.
Boris Johnson and Ann Widdecombe are among the most sought-after speakers on the constituency associations’ rubber chicken circuit. Tory members turn out for celebrity and entertainment. It has been said that David Cameron has the x-factor. That he is the stardust candidate. That idea came to life on TV when a black man spontaneously hugged him in the street and called for others to embrace him, too. When was the last time that any Tory was so cool? The Conservative Party knew that it had a star in the making. He was liked by people who hadn’t warmed to the Conservative Party before. He was able to talk about his love for his disabled son without overdoing it. His optimistic disposition was almost Reaganesque. His smile was a welcome change from the usual Tory frown.
If Cameron gave a good speech at conference, David Davis gave a poor speech. He was guilty of basic errors. The speech was written by a committee of advisers. No single speechwriter had been found who could become ‘his voice’. He failed to rehearse the speech until the day before. Hadn’t any of his advisers ever watched the West Wing and seen the preparation that is necessary for such an occasion? Hadn’t they talked to any previous leader and learnt about the need for intensive preparation and rehearsal of such set-piece events? There was a moment of real pathos when David Davis had finished his speech flatly and had to gesture to his audience to rise to its feet.
Unfortunately for David Davis the media reported a disappointing speech as a disastrous speech. ITN’s Political Editor, Tom Bradby, led the charge. Mr and Mrs Tory Member watching the news from their sofa learnt that David Davis had bombed and had bombed bad. BBC’s Nick Robinson was kinder in his first reports for News 24 but was soon chanting the ‘this has been a disaster for Davis’ mantra.
The press hunt in packs and David Davis became their unfortunate quarry. No journalist called halt. Davis had few friends in the lobby. Some lobby journalists wanted the race to be interesting and hitting the frontrunner was good for the horserace. Some had been roughed up by Team Davis and – like the former leadership regime loyalists in parliament – they took their opportunity for revenge. The third factor is the politics of the lobby. Most of the journalists who write for right-of-centre newspapers don’t vote Tory. Fewer still are social or cultural conservatives. One leading journalist on a right-wing newspaper was heard to describe the Tory faithful as xenophobic and racist. The lobby is liberal and metropolitan. That’s why Tony Blair and David Blunkett have come to hate it for that reason. David Cameron, however, moves in the same social circles as the bourgeous liberal media and they like what they see in him. He’s a member of the in-crowd and a good mixer. Whereas they see Davis as more Chav than Chablis.
Within 24 hours of Davis’ speech the bookmakers had overturned the odds and installed Cameron as favourite. That status was confirmed by a YouGov poll two days later. Support for Cameron had doubled. Davis’ support had halved. Peter Kellner, Chairman of YouGov, said that he had "never seen such a big change in such a short time in 35 years of reporting and conducting opinion polls". YouGov's polling has - for the second Tory election in a row - been proved highly accurate. MPs got the message from the polls. An election that could have been decided behind closed doors - with promises of jobs and arms-twisting - was being decided by the opinions of grassroots members. Michael Howard had miscalculated that MPs would be less enamoured of David Davis than party members. In the end it was a tidal wave of grassroots support that led many MPs to abandon their pledges to Mr Davis and embrace the X-factor Cameron. Mr Howard had seen one of his ‘Children’ anointed but more by accident than design.
A lesser man would have collapsed under these circumstances but there is an obstinate courage about David Davis. He was not engulfed by the tempest of Blackpool or the parliamentary rounds of voting. Some of the MPs who had run his campaign up until that time were sidelined and outside professionals were drafted in. Andrew Mitchell MP, his campaign manager, knew that urgent action was needed to slow the Cameron juggernaut. He hired ex-Times journalist Nick Wood and former TV journalist Nick Longworth, both of Media Intelligence Partners, to oversee the media operation and David Canzini, a hard-bitten ex-Central Office election scrapper, took over the grassroots campaign. There was suddenly new life in the campaign. Hard-edged policies on tax, Europe, education and social justice were introduced that, if they had come earlier, might have protected him from the competition that had already overwhelmed him.
He did not trash David Cameron. Most believed that he conducted the contest with a statesmanlike eye to the long-term health of the Conservative Party. In this he confounded those who could only see him as a schemer, always out for himself. Camp Cameron had expected David Davis to throw the kitchen sink at their candidate during the critical Question Time debate. He was certainly supplied with potentially deadly ammunition. As part of a detailed half-day rehearsal at the Lewis media centre at Millbank tower, once Labour’s temple of spin, experts fine-tuned killer lines that could have spotlighted David Cameron’s policy u-turns, his extraordinary inexperience and his evasiveness about past drug use. Amanda Platell, Hague’s former media adviser, made a guest appearance at the rehearsal, giving Davis advice on how to project his message under fire. But Davis declined to use the rehearsed lines that might only have poisoned the party for years to come.
David Davis still won the Question Time debate. He demonstrated a superior grasp of policy and he crystallised the choice before party activists. After three Blair governments people were tired of the politics of spin. “Frankly,” he said, “this is the worst moment for the Conservative Party to imitate Tony Blair.” But he failed to break the love affair between the party and Cameron.
WILL DAVID CAMERON SUCCEED?
The Conservative Party has now chosen a leader who has, himself, compared his appeal and mission to that of Tony Blair. Tony Blair, however, had been an MP for eleven years before he became leader. He had been Shadow Employment Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. He had bested Michael Howard at the despatch box.
Nonetheless he arrives as leader with an extraordinary opportunity. He enjoys the goodwill of the press at a time when Labour smells of decay. There is no doubt that he has the confidence of the majority of parliamentary party and the grassroots membership. His fluent charm and political nous have earned goodwill from the left and right leaving him able to lead a broad shadow cabinet that will include a majority of supporters. This is very different from Margaret Thatcher’s position in the 1970s. The party in the country had wanted Heath to stay as leader and her first shadow cabinet included only three devotees.
David Cameron has the opportunity, skills and charisma to reshape Conservatism. Will he be bold or will he exhibit the Major-like caution that saw his campaign falter until September? Critical to his success will be the way he manages the tensions within the Conservative coalition. His leadership bid attracted support from the liberal Notting Hillbillies as well as the socially conservative Cornerstone Group. Will he be a first among equals in a shadow cabinet of all the talents or will major decisions be taken around the kitchen tables of London W11? An unhappy right could be Mr Cameron’s greatest headache in six months’ time.
A pledge to leave the EPP and a promise of a tax allowance for married couples was the loose change that bought David Cameron the support of the right. Leading lights of the three most important parliamentary right-wing groups endorsed him. John Hayes from Cornerstone. Gerald Howarth from the ‘92 Group. John Redwood from No Turning Back. Will they stay loyal if the exit from the EPP is kicked into the long grass and the tax incentive for marriage ends up being paltry?
Popularity may keep the right quiet as Blair’s popularity once kept Labour’s left compliant. With Hague, Fox, Duncan Smith, Fox, Osborne, Rifkind and Davis, the young king can appoint a court of enormous talent. The Conservative Party suddenly looks much more impressive than the government it shadows. The danger comes if the political climate turns hostile. The men around Cameron stop looking like a government-in-waiting and more like would-be leaders ready to catch the crown if it slips from the young king’s head.
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