Conservative Diary

David Davis

6 Nov 2010 08:51:58

The future of David Davis

By Paul Goodman

DAVIS LOOKING "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.

7 Jul 2010 08:33:20

7/7, five years on - "They haven't gone away, you know."

Screen shot 2010-07-06 at 21.47.59 "I remember, I remember", a Philip Larkin poem title runs.  I remember parts of 7/7, but have forgotten far more.  I've forgotten exactly when and where I was when rumours of gas explosions on the underground hardened into confirmation of bomb attacks.  I've forgotten how I came to be in the Shadow Home Secretary's Office later that morning - was I summoned, or there anyway? - or when I was asked to help with his response to the Home Secretary's emergency Commons statement (or why).  I've forgotten where I wrestled with his draft or sat in the Chamber.

And my memories of the day are blurred, disconnected images: seeing David Davis at the Westminster Tube entrance near Portcullis House, before the news broke, with Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson (then of the Telegraph, now of the Times); walking down the Embankment to find my wife, who works in an office off Fleet Street; exchanging a few grim words near the Chamber with Patrick Mercer.  What comes back most clearly is the sense, almost the smell, of confusion - the mobile connections went down - and, yes, the fear: it wasn't clear (how could it have been?) that there were four bombs only.  There could and there might have been more.

Davis was judged at the time to have spoken briefly, cogently and with dignity in the Commons.  7/7 was followed by a frantic Blair policy upheaval.  Does it appear, in retrospect, to have be an over-reaction, and the Islamist threat to have been over-hyped?  Today, the London murders can seem more like an end than a beginning.  After all, there've been, to date, no more terror transport killings in the capital.  (Mercifully, the 21/7 attacks claimed no casualties.)  Indeed, there's been no large-scale mainland terror attack since the assault on Glasgow airport in the summer of 2007.

I tend to hear two views.  The first is that the threat was and remains very serious, and that the Security Services deserve our thanks for forestalling it to date.  The second is that it was indeed over-inflated, and was used as cover for draconian measures by a Labour Government contemptuous of our freedoms - as yesterday's announcement over the treatment of detainees indictates.  As I write, the latter take seems to fit the public mood.  Under the Coalition Government, there's a new stress on civil liberties.  Even if Labour hadn't lost, the public mood in relation to Afghanistan is one of war-weariness (which today's announcement of the withdrawal of British forces from Sangin will do nothing to dispel).  It can be argued that the threat from Irish republicans is greater than that from Al Qaeda.

Screen shot 2010-07-06 at 22.44.10 I wonder if the two views are completely incompatible.  Yes, the threat was clearly very grave.  If the 21/7 bombers had mixed their explosives properly, there'd have been further Underground deaths.  If there hadn't been bollards outside the terminal entrance, there could have been scores of deaths in Glasgow.  If Nicky Reilly had known what he was about, he could have brought murder and mayhem to an Exeter restaurant two years ago.  The Bluewater mall murder plot and airplane liquid explosives conspiracy were thwarted.  We should be grateful today for the work of the Security Services, who toil for our safety and security with little public recognition and reward.  And if the threat was urgent then, there's no reason to believe it isn't now.

None the less, no convincing case has been made for 28 days detention without charge.  I had constituents who were held for that period in relation to the liquid explosives plot, but then released.  Labour, remember, tried to push that total up to 90 days.  Pauline Neville-Jones, the Security Minister, gave a TV interview recently stressing Ministers' willingness to re-examine 28 days, to review the present operation of stop and search and control orders, and to re-examine the "Prevent" counter-terror programme that they've inherited.  There's been, she said, a "loss of trust" between voters - not just Muslim ones - and government over our freedoms.  The paucity of UK terror attacks since 7/7 sits uncomfortably with claims of over two thousand Al Qaeda activists in Britain.

So it's possible for the threat both to have been very serious and yet have been exploited ruthlessly by Labour Ministers.  Andrew Gilligan recently wrote a persuasive article in the Spectator arguing that the new Government has an opportunity to get policy right by clamping down on extremism while easing up on civil liberties.  And if the number of terror operatives in Britain is less than is sometimes alleged - my impression is that Britain's big anti-Al Qaeda Muslim majority has slowly got its act together since 2005 -  it's still worth bearing in mind that only a few people are required to cause terror on a colossal scale, with dire consequences.  Remember the words of Gerry Adams on the IRA, an organisation to which he was no stranger: "They haven't gone away, you know."

Paul Goodman

3 Jul 2010 22:13:51

David Davis speaks out against Ken Clarke's prison plans - again

Screen shot 2010-07-03 at 22.24.06 Readers of Melissa Kite's Tamsin Lightwater column for the Spectator - now, alas, defunct - will have noted that from time to time it gave a cameo role to David Davis.  The former Shadow Home Secretary and Conservative leadership contender was portrayed as a fatigues-clad, gun-toting, military-fixated maniac.  Perhaps surprisingly, this caricature was sketched with indulgent affection, and suggested that journalist and politician were on sound lobby terms.

Davis has given Kite an interview in tomorrow's Sunday Telegraph, and in it he repeats the criticisms he made of the Justice Secretary's plan to put fewer criminals behind bars a few days ago on the BBC's Straight Talk.  The news report drawn from the interview is headlined "David Davis says Coalition prison plans are dangerous and unworkable" - which gives the flavour of it.  Davis says that Clarke's plan could do "much more harm" than locking criminals up, and implies that the Coalition is trying to "save money rather than solve the problem".

He also says -

"Prison may be expensive but it's less expensive than the alternative which is rising crime in the community which does much more harm.  You could end up with a false economy. It is perfectly right to have the debate but let's not jump to conclusion."

"There is nothing wrong with the initial concern which is that the reoffending rate in prisons has gone up. However there are a number of problems with it.  This throwaway line that it is more expensive than sending a kid to Eton – it may be, but it is not more expensive necessarily than sending a criminal out onto the streets.

A typical criminal will commit 140 crimes a year and that costs from £100 to £380,000 and that is not accounting for the harm done to people...My slogan was Make Prison Work. They seem to have lost sight of all that. They have jumped from the Michael Howard approach to the opposite, when the solution lies in the middle ground.

I don't think you can jump to the conclusion that Ken has jumped to because there are no well proven methods of improving reoffending rates any more than custodial sentences, which leaves you with the impression that this is about saving money rather than solving the problem.

"There is nothing wrong with saving money, but you want to make sure it is more effective not less effective.  Let's have a debate, but let's have a very serious assessment. They have got to answer all these questions."

Davis also raises the possibility of deporting some of the 10,000 foreign prisoners currently serving sentences in British jails and, when asked whether the majority of Conservative MPs are of his view rather than Clarke's, says "I think they are."

Some Tories will see Davis's comments as evidence that he's a bold politician and principled Conservative who won't stay silent when he believes that he should speak out.  Others will read them as confirming that he's a compulsive soloist and disloyal maverick.  You pay your money - so to speak - and make your choice.  What's certain is that a second Davis interview on the subject in a week - following sharp interventions from him on the 55 per cent election controversy and the decision to maintain 28 days detention without charge - is bound further to irritate Downing Street.  It's more evidence of the three-cornered nature of the Coalition that I wrote about this morning.

Paul Goodman

23 Jun 2010 08:51:54

How Conservative backbenchers won the battle on the Capital Gains Tax rate

Screen shot 2010-06-23 at 10.10.39 The Liberal Democrat manifesto committed that Party to tax capital gains "at the same rate as income".  The Coalition Agreement said that the Government would "seek ways of taxing non-business capital gains at rates similar or close to those applied to income".  Early reports suggested that the Coalition would bring CGT into line with the top rate of tax at 50 per cent.

This morning, Conservative backbenchers are claiming victory, in the aftermath of the rate being set at in yesterday's budget at 28 per cent.  Yesterday afternoon in the Commons, as George Osborne announced the news, one leading right-winger turned to his equally prominent neighbour.  "I reckon that'll do," he said.  For the moment at least, the revolt over CGT seems to be over.

Waged in newspaper columns, private meetings with the Chancellor, blog entries, questions to the Prime Minister and think-tank reports, the struggle over taxing capital gains may be a pointer to the future.  It  made visible the tensions between the Party's front and back benches over strategy, policy, and the future of the Coalition itself.  There've been five key players in the attempted pre-emptive strike against a CGT rise -

First, Michael Forsyth The word "Thatcherite" might almost have been coined to describe Forsyth.  Tough, bright and fervent, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean was drafted in by George Osborne during his early days as Shadow Chancellor to head up a Tax Commission - when the first George Osborne was in place.

It's a decision that the second, third and fourth George Osborne may have regretted.  Forsyth produced a radical, tax-slashing report; one of its main themes was that lower taxes bring higher revenue.  He was the first senior Tory to sound off against a CGT rise - in the Daily Mail on 17th May.

His report didn't oppose taxing capital gains.  Rather, it said that "the current regime should be replaced with a tax on short-term capital gains only".  An alarmed Forsyth raised his CGT concerns at a No Turning Back Group dinner the evening after his Mail remarks were published - and others were quick to pile in.

John Redwood 2 Second, John Redwood Redwood is one of the few politicians both to grasp that blogs are important and to write one that's readable.  On May 18, he wrote that "last night, a group of MPs and peers worked into the night on how we might come up with a solution to the political problem facing the Coalition".

This was a reference to the NTB dinner.  Headlined "Tax cuts and Robin Hood", it warned against soaking "business, enterprise and investment".  One of its key features was the suggestion of a taper, operating at lower rates than a similar one in the Forsyth report.  This, Redwood wrote, would help to raise revenue.

On June 10, he took on the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which opposes taper relief, arguing that the IFS's own figures prove that it brings higher revenues.  The IFS's intervention was intriguing.  Redwood pointedly remarked that part of the taxpayer-subsidised IFS's brief is "to avoid party political argument".

Third, David Davis.  Some would claim that Davis' golden period was as Shadow Home Secretary.  Others, more controversially, maintain that his civil liberties by-election was his finest hour.  But his forte, arguably, is running backbench campaigns - such as his successful push during the 1980s to scrap the Dock Labour Scheme.

Continue reading "How Conservative backbenchers won the battle on the Capital Gains Tax rate" »