At a dinner party in central London a few months ago, David Davis made an extraordinary confession. He had become disenchanted with David Cameron, he said, and was considering quitting politics. ‘I believe in certain things,’ he said, ‘and I do not believe the next Conservative government will implement them.’ He wondered if he should try to earn a little money in the outside world. He did not come across as bitter or regicidal, I am told, just disillusioned — and planning a graceful exit.
Or, as it turned out, a rather spectacular one. It is now more than a week since Mr Davis resigned to campaign on the issue of civil liberties, and MPs are still comparing theories. No one denies he is genuinely committed to the cause, but no one can understand why he believes he could achieve more from the backbenches than as Home Secretary. Some argue that he’s angling for a peerage, or hopes to come back to Westminster with a populist halo. But given that he’s certain to be re-elected next month, the question is how Mr Cameron handles him.
So many theories abound about Mr Davis’s ‘real’ intentions that the most damaging possible explanation — a loss of faith in Mr Cameron — has hardly been mentioned. Their differences over issues such as tax, grammar schools and defence spending are hardly a secret, having been extensively aired during the leadership contest. They were also said to disagree over Mr Cameron’s plans for locally elected police chiefs — Mr Davis asking what a home secretary would have left to do if policing was devolved. Mr Davis ferociously denies any such splits, but anecdotal evidence to the contrary has been accumulating for some time.
One of his friends says that, ‘It wasn’t 42 days that did for David, but 42 Old Etonians.’ This is an exaggeration — there are no more than a dozen Old Etonians working for Mr Cameron and George Osborne went to St Paul’s. But it is true that Mr Davis operated in his own centre of gravity. Mr Cameron had believed such autonomy suited him. To his dismay, he must now decide whether Mr Davis is likely to become a source of antagonism to him on the backbenches and whether his former rival should be assuaged or isolated.
Last weekend, orders went out from Mr Cameron’s office that no rude comments were to be made about Mr Davis. It was a tall order. Shadow ministers who were Mr Davis’s allies are now denouncing him as a deserter. The consensus is that he would not accept a junior shadow cabinet job and could not be trusted with a senior one. Mr Cameron cannot risk having Mr Davis detonate during a general election campaign.
Shadow cabinet members have started to joke about the excuses they are making not to help in his by-election. At Policy Exchange’s packed annual party on Tuesday, Mr Osborne was the guest of honour. ‘I won’t detain you long — that’s the government’s job now,’ said the shadow chancellor. Then the punchline: ‘There — I’ve just done my bit for the David Davis campaign.’ It raised a long laugh.
The conversation at that party proved how quickly Mr Davis’s star has fallen. One activist there told me that Mr Davis ‘has gone from a respected front-bench player to the Eddie the Eagle of politics’. It does not help Mr Davis that the only candidates so far fighting him in his by-election are attention-seekers such as a former Miss United Kingdom and a Monster Raving Loony candidate (who is in favour of 42 days detention). To make matters worse, broadcasters are obliged to give equal coverage to all main candidates.
The main hope for Mr Davis is to emerge as the man who gave up his career for a cause he believed in. This is why the Conservatives will not yet disown him — even if his re-election website makes no mention of the party. Mr Cameron will campaign for him, but has not authorised any party money to be spent on his re-election. Mr Davis is hoping to make good the shortfall by small donations, emphasising the popular base of his appeal. Armed with such a mandate, he believes he would be a force to be reckoned with.
It may be hard for Mr Davis to resist speaking to Conservative annual conference in Birmingham this autumn. If so, it will be hard for the media to resist bringing clapometers to compare his reception against that of David Cameron. ‘I seem to remember he took us on at conference two years ago in Blackpool and it didn’t go very well,’ says one Cameroon aide. ‘What will he do this time? Regale us with one of his famous conference speeches?’ The overwhelming Westminster consensus is that Mr Davis is finished.
Those who have spoken to Mr Davis recently say he believes the natural gravity of Westminster will pull him back up, even if he is not quite sure how. He believes his pugilistic skills, and his appeal to blue-collar voters, are too important not to be used. Yet his calculations did not factor in the speed with which Mr Cameron named Dominic Grieve his permanent replacement. Mr Cameron feels strong enough to do what Iain Duncan Smith dared not: leave Mr Davis to prowl on the backbenches.
There is something undeniably inspiring about Mr Davis forsaking his career to protest against the increasing power of the state. For the millions who despise the Westminster system, it is an encouraging gesture and it will help the Tories that the maverick in question is wearing a blue rosette. All this will make it that much harder for the Liberal Democrats to portray the Conservatives as authoritarian at election time.
But to use one of the military analogies of which Mr Davis is so fond, this was not his SAS Iranian embassy rescue mission but a one-man Charge of the Light Brigade. Westminster’s reaction is the same as General Bosquet’s at Balaclava: C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. For a political warrior like Mr Davis it is certainly a romantic way to leave the battlefield. But Mr Cameron is now determined that there should be no route back.