As David Cameron completes his first 100 days, the man he defeated for the leadership gives his first interview to Fraser Nelson — and foresees policy battles to come
As I wait for David Davis in the corner of his huge House of Commons office, it’s easy to forget that he was the loser of the Conservative party’s leadership race. Aides nervously shuttle in and out, taking notes as he plans the day like a military operation. He has injured his wrist while rock-climbing, and uses a special laptop computer which looks like one big screen with no keys. I remark that I saw the same device in a Tom Cruise film, used by a hitman to identify his victims. ‘Yes, you can do that with it, too,’ he says cheerfully. We sit down to business.
Only six months ago Davis was on his own assassination mission. He was front-runner to be the 20th leader of the Conservative party and his main opponent was a politician 18 years his junior, with a fraction of his parliamentary experience. He saw Cameron as easy prey, and regarded him with unvarnished contempt, but soon realised his mistake as he was outgunned, outclassed and soundly defeated. As they debated with each other across Britain, they forged an unlikely mutual respect which has today brought them into partnership. With Cameron set to complete his first 100 days as leader on 16 March, Davis sees himself not just as a supporter of the Cameron revolution, but as one of its joint architects.
This is his first interview since the leadership election, and he is routinely referring to his party as the ‘Cameron Conservatives’ while laying joint claim to its success. ‘Look at the standing of the party,’ he says. ‘Improvement started early on in the leadership campaign. And I’m conceited enough to think I contributed towards it’ — by the nature and tenor of the debate. ‘David and I agreed on the vast majority of issues. Where we disagreed, it was civilised and very often one of us gained an insight from the other.’ This has continued in shadow Cabinet meetings, he says, where he makes ‘two jokes to every one serious point’. And out of this ‘synthesis’ of views has come a new Conservative credo called ‘Built to Last’.
The eight core beliefs — published last week — seem at first glance to be pure Cameron: committing the party to environmentalism, making poverty history and helping the poorest. Lord Tebbit, a former party chairman, said they could have been copied from Labour’s manifesto. But Davis declares himself not only comfortable with the declarations, but the author of ‘more than two’ of them. He picks an example. ‘The phrase “the test of a policy is what it does for the least well-off in society” was the first sentence in my spring conference speech in 2002,’ he says. ‘These are Tory beliefs that are timeless, but Tory beliefs which the public has forgotten.’
He sees his type of Conservatism stamped in each of the eight pledges, representing the ethics which first drew him to the party. ‘I am the product of a single-parent family. You need a policy which gives a good outcome for society,’ he says. If Cameron’s pledges sound new, it shows how successfully Labour maligned the Tories. ‘We are dealing with a ten-year-old calumny,’ he says. ‘Labour managed to nail the Conservatives with the sleaze badge in the 1990s: that we were self-interested and hard-faced. It’s always been a lie, but we have not managed to break that calumny. Under David’s leadership, people now listen. For quite a long time they simply were not listening to the Tories.’
His analysis is starkly different from that of Cameron, who is adamant that the party is changing, and radically. Davis sees a revolution of presentation, not of ideas. ‘We have swerved a bit too much in recent years,’ he says. ‘We started to the Left and swerved to the Right. We have to go in a straight line’. And this, curiously, is exactly what he believes Cameron is now doing. ‘This is not a swerve to the Left. I would not be in the shadow Cabinet, I would not be doing this, if it was.’
But what about tax cuts that formed the cornerstone of Davis’s personal manifesto? One of the new eight core values puts ‘economic stability … before tax cuts’. He, however, sees no contradiction. ‘It doesn’t say “instead of tax cuts”,’ he says. ‘Everyone knows I’m a low-tax Tory, and I would not be in the shadow Cabinet if I didn’t think a Cameron government with George Osborne in the Treasury would not mean, in the medium to long term, a lower-tax society.’ Cameron’s genius, he says, is to have couched this mission in a vocabulary immune to attack. ‘David is avoiding the calumny of Labour saying “Well, they’re just cutting taxes for the rich”,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of dealing with that argument.’
And it is also the path to government. ‘I am not a believer in having a political party as a debating shop. We’ve got to be doing things. We will not have a low-tax economy if we don’t have a Tory party in power.’ This is why it is necessary to modernise, he says. ‘It’s a new experiment because it’s a new era’ — then he corrects himself, as if realising how disloyalty could be read into the word. ‘I didn’t say “experiment”,’ he assures me. ‘It is an innovation.’ And an innovation which, he stresses once again, has his complete support.
It is less clear whether this happy consensus will survive into the policy-making stage. Davis says he and Cameron share an ‘obsession’ with social mobility — but their methods for improving state schools and NHS hospitals seem diametrically opposed. At the last election the Tories proposed a ‘passport’ policy taking the poor out of the public sector. If parents could find a private school with fees less than the cost of a state education, a Tory government would pay the bill. If they go to a private clinic for an operation, a Tory government would subsidise the medical charges. Davis was very comfortable with the principles.
But to Cameron it sent out all the wrong messages. One of his first moves was to tear up the ‘passport’ policy, taking out an advertisement in the Sunday Telegraph to declare, ‘We believe in the NHS. We want to improve it for everyone, not help a few to opt out.’ Davis voices no such ideological objections. When asked why the passport system had to go, he says, ‘It was too easily misinterpreted.’ The problem was presentational, not ideological. So will the idea drop? Or will there be other plans?
‘Oh yes. That’s what the policy commissions are for. I look around the shadow Cabinet and see George Osborne. He’s no pinko. I look across at William Hague and at David himself. This is a group which actually shares 80 to 90 per cent of the same principles: they believe in localism, in choice, diversity, and they also believe it’s our duty to do this for the whole of society.’ While Cameron rejects ‘opting out’ of the state sector, Davis strikes a very different chord. ‘Ideally, you give the individual complete control’, allowing them to ‘buy it themselves’. But this is not always possible. So under the Davis plan the next best option is to ‘give them power to decide where it’s coming from — whether it’s [done by] vouchers, and all the rest of it, all these sorts of words which become parodies and used in a pejorative way. But whatever the mechanism, it will be a control mechanism which gives power back, so a parent can choose where the kid goes to school.’
This sounds very similar to a voucher system, and
Davis’s willingness to use the v-word is a step further than most of its proponents dare admit. He feels comfortable enough to make his argument in public: after all, one of Cameron’s eight new Tory principles calls for public services ‘guaranteed by the state, not necessarily run by the state’. What else could this mean apart from a voucher system of some kind? ‘I can’t pre-empt the commission,’ he says. But he intends to fight his corner. ‘What I’ll be arguing for in the shadow Cabinet — and I’m sure there will be a debate — will be something in that direction.’
Many politicians are vain or suggestible enough to keep blabbing until they say things they regret. Not Davis. He weighs every word and when my tape recorder suddenly dies, he stops talking mid-sentence, as if someone had pressed a ‘pause’ button in his head. When his aide kindly brings a new machine, he enters full flow again. He is a professional, and knows his words will convey that his support for the Cameron project has a price. He is happy to act as Cameron’s one-man militia, defending his leader against attacks from the Right. But if Cameron wants to steer the party to the Left, adopting the Labour agenda on tax and public services, he will do so without Davis.
So far, Cameron’s colleagues have found him surprisingly open to such arguments. The first draft of his eight pledges contained a commitment on ‘inequality’; this was dropped in favour of a commitment on poverty. Cameron was also nervous about opposing identity cards, when opinion polls showed strong public support for the idea. Davis won him round, saying that values of civil liberty were at stake. Davis detects a new atmosphere in the party. ‘You will see the Right of the party making arguments, not attacks,’ he said. ‘We are starting to see a Conservative movement. And this is all to the good. Let a thousand flowers bloom,’ he says. ‘If they don’t, how will we pick the best blossom?’
For all this, Davis is more fighter than gardener. When I ask if he has mellowed since the leadership election, he seems almost insulted. ‘The first job of the parliamentarian is to be the champion of the people he represents. In the old days champions would come out with a sword and armour. At least we got that fixed.’ But if the weapons have changed, the remit has not. ‘It requires you to be sometimes tough, sometimes strong, sometimes fierce and actually take on a fight. I don’t demur from that at all.’
His friends say a change came over him since his campaign; that, aged 57, he accepts he will not be party leader, has given up his old mutinous ways and has put his gladiatorial skills at the service of his boss. ‘I expect David to be the next prime minister and that’s the fonction du jour,’ he says when I ask about his ambitions. And the leadership? ‘I think I’ve had enough goes at that one.’ Davis sees his agenda live on, albeit within the big tent which he believes Cameron erected last week with the eight pledges.
‘People know my beliefs. They exist right down to the bone. They have not changed for 20-odd years. Somebody once showed an embarrassing video of me addressing a party conference in 1974. I had great wavy collars, hair down to here, and I realised I was making a speech I could have made yesterday. People know there is not much budge in me.’ So he sees in Cameron a means of reaching the principles which he has personally always stood for? ‘Yes. And I think we’ll get there.’
Fraser Nelson is associate editor of The Spectator and political editor of the Business.