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A bastard? Me?

Petronella Wyatt talks to David Davis, the Tory leadership contender, and finds a mixture of charm and ambition

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

David Davis is the first prospective Tory leader to have been born in a council house to an unmarried mother. The bookies’ favourite to take over from Michael Howard, Davis, 56, is said by his supporters to have garnered the necessary qualities on his way to the top: determination, spirit, tenacity, a sense of social justice and an understanding of ‘the man and woman on the street’. His detractors claim the shadow home secretary is arrogant, treacherous, lazy and unable to get on with those from more privileged backgrounds, such as the members of the ‘Notting Hill Set’, to which his leadership rival David Cameron belongs.

I have arranged to meet Davis in his Westminster office. The helicopter flying him from his Yorkshire constituency is late and Tory MPs are in the middle of voting on the proposed leadership rule changes. After a few minutes I am ushered into the inner sanctum. Davis bounds towards me, smiling amiably. His face is masculine and pleasant, with a broken nose — a testimony to his fighting spirit; he smashed it playing rugby and intervening in a mugging. In contrast to his main opponent, Ken Clarke, he is dressed well in a blue shirt and fuchsia tie, but not as if he is trying too hard. ‘I am sorry everything is so rushed,’ he apologises in his everyman voice, ‘but that’s my life at the moment.’ Davis is launching his bid for power on the basis that he is the only candidate who understands the less well-off and can help them — thereby winning back essential votes. He calls himself a ‘One Nation Tory’ with radical solutions to poverty. Much has been made of his start in life. He did not know he was illegitimate until he was 12, a moment he recalls with pain. ‘One day my mother, Betty, and the man I thought was my father said they were going to adopt me.’ He did not get on with his stepfather, Ronald Davis, a manual worker, and walked out of what he calls their ‘terrible slum’. He fought his way up, sometimes with his fists, becoming a successful businessman and then a Tory minister.

‘Has anyone ever called you a bastard, David — in either sense of the word?’ I ask him. He laughs, but with steel. ‘Not to my face. They wouldn’t dare. An EU commissioner once called me a charming bastard, but that was to a journalist and I liked the charming bit.’ Davis has charm without being oily. A poll recently found that of all the leadership candidates, Davis was the one women found the sexiest. ‘Oh, God, I heard about that.’ He looks terrified. Did he tell his no-nonsense, red-headed wife, Doreen? (Doreen, or ‘Do’ as he calls her, spends most of her time in their house in Yorkshire.) ‘Absolutely not. She often calls me a male chauvinist pig.’ I wonder if Davis has any sexual skeletons in his closet.

‘Do women come on to you at parties?’ I inquire. (I have actually seen this happen.) He blushes peony-pink. ‘What a question to ask me! I have no sexual skeletons, Petronella!’

It is easy to believe this. Davis is far too careful to have even the smallest rattling finger bone in his cupboard. This is both a plus point and a minus one. His allies say there will never be a scandal, his enemies that his ambition is almost inhuman. He undoubtedly has a large ego. Davis is convinced he will win the leadership race. He tells me he has 50 public pledges from MPs (private pledges edge the figure up to 70) and expects more by the end of the week. The heavyweight Tories Mark Field and Nigel Evans have just given him their backing. That puts him well in front of Clarke and Cameron. Just then one of his aides comes in with a piece of paper bearing the results of the vote on the leadership changes. Tories have decided to keep the old rules, which give party activists the final say. Davis looks pleased, even though pundits say it will give Clarke a boost.

‘That’s nonsense,’ he counters bullishly. ‘I’m actually ahead with the activists.’ Davis insists he is the most populist candidate and the only Tory who can beat Gordon Brown. ‘I shall do this partly by helping the poor.’ How is he going to do this? Does he agree with Ken Clarke that there is no alternative to the welfare state? ‘No. I completely disagree. I admire Ken but he is wrong. We need a radical alternative to the dependency culture. When the welfare system fails,’ he points out, with undeniable logic, ‘it is the less well-off who suffer.’ Davis is in favour of vouchers for education and health as well as tax cuts. This last puts him squarely opposed to Clarke, who is economically leftish. ‘Leadership contenders have a rule not to criticise each other’s personalities,’ Davis reflects. ‘But Ken isn’t right.’

So does he support the shadow chancellor George Osborne’s proposal for a flat tax? Oddly, he doesn’t. ‘It’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it would be easy to implement here,’ he remarks rather witheringly. I have a feeling that young Osborne will not be keeping his job for very much longer. There are rumours that Davis has offered the shadow chancellorship to William Hague, but he is coy. ‘I haven’t offered anyone anything yet.’ (My hoot of disbelief goes unnoticed.) ‘Of course, Hague is such a big man that anyone would want him on their team.’

Until Clarke’s entry into the contest, I remark, the media described it as a sort of them v. us competition, the toffish Notting Hill Set versus the state school meritocrats. What will he do to the Old Etonians if he wins? Hang them up by their feet? Davis chortles merrily. ‘Of course not. The press concocted this whole thing. I take people on merit, not on whether they went to Eton. You can tell that to Boris Johnson,’ he adds mischievously. Would he give the Etonian David Cameron a job? He answers that he would certainly work with Cameron. And in the unlikely event that Cameron won? ‘Er, yes. Actually, I am closer to him politically than I am to Clarke.’ Gosh. Is he saying he would refuse to work with Clarke? ‘No, no.’ It would be the clash of the titanic egos.

‘Why are you so ambitious, David?’ He denies that he is. ‘But you want to be prime minister!’ ‘Because the other side is making such a horlicks of everything.’ ‘Your enemies say you are absolutely ruthless, treacherous even,’ I continue hopefully. Supporters of Iain Duncan Smith, who made Davis party chairman, accuse him of disloyalty. His face suddenly assumes a grim expression. He suggests briefly that I should ask IDS. Obviously the topic is an unpalatable one.

I move on, being rather fond of the shape of my nose as it is. ‘But would you admit that you were a teensy bit arrogant?’ Davis’s Spencer Tracy-like face brightens again, and he chuckles. ‘I’m both arrogant and humble.’

And what about the lazy charge? In many ways it is unfair. Instead of taking a job under Hague, Davis became chairman of the Commons public accounts committee for four years, producing informative reports about how taxpayers’ money was misspent and placing him in an excellent position to land a few blows on Gordon Brown. Still, even Davis’s friends say he can be a bit casual. How long does he spend on his speeches, for instance? ‘Not long enough, and I don’t practise them,’ he confesses ruefully. ‘I suppose I am a bit lazy about that.’ Tut, tut, I reprimand him. ‘I will in the future,’ he assures me.

Our time is up. Davis has a meeting on terrorism with Michael Howard. We shake hands. ‘Are you confident you will win?’ ‘Yes.’ But the even bigger questi
on is this — can he win an election against Brown? ‘Yes, I can,’ he replies, and sounds as if he genuinely believes it. And what about Doreen? A former teacher, she has never been in the limelight. ‘Do is a little apprehensive. But she is a strong personality. She is not likely to fall apart if someone criticises her dress sense.’ He grins again and waves goodbye.

Davis may be right to be confident. Of all the leadership contenders, he is perhaps the man most likely. Unlike Clarke he carries no baggage, has physical energy on his side, and is more in tune with his party and its values. If only he would work on his speeches more.

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