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 claimed, ‘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 on everyone’s lips is how Mr Cameron handles him then.
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 along his own orbit. 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, such as transport, and that he 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. But Davis has others lined up to help – from Nigel Kennedy, the violinist, to a staged debate with Tony Benn.
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 definition of “main” will, this time, extend to what was once considered fringe.
Things may be different had Mr David briefed a series of aides before he left, so they could explain his actions to his baffled party. His analysis is simple: huge injustice of 42-day detention, brought about by votes bought by corrupt methods. It can only be stopped if the government does not use the Parliament Act to override the Lords. And it is less likely to do so if Mr Davis has just sacrificed his career, whilst describing it as the end of liberty. As he sees it, this is a chance where it is not only possible but necessary to make a difference. And the public realises that, even if the Westminster Village does not.
So he intends his by-election campaign to be full of amusements, if not political drama, to keep up the pressure. And if the government baulks at forcing its legislation through the Lords, then Mr Davis will consider it a victory and his sacrifice. Then he can get to work trying to rehabilitate his political career for he has every intention of getting back to the top.
His main hope 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 pointedly 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. Most of the opposition to the 42 days legislation is from Liberal Democrat supporters, whom the Tories badly need to woo. Mr Davis is their new pin-up.
There is plenty of history for Mr Davis to console himself with. Many of the main players in Thatcher’s first Cabinet were not in the Shadow Cabinet – the team around her in the 1970s was, as Keith Joseph put it, “very much a second eleven.” Meanwhile he will be free to write books about the corrosion of liberty. He may even finish the work on social mobility which he started, but this time able to suggest solutions that Mr Cameron has so far ruled out. Two obvious ones include selective education, and lower taxes on the poor. As a Shadow Cabinet member he could not have raised either issue, yet now he can.
This is his wider strategy. That inside the Shadow Cabinet he had to keep quiet, and that the only times he could let off steam was at the dinner parties. As the third most senior Shadow Cabinet member, any dissenting idea he produced would be instantly written up as disloyalty – and as the notoriously headstrong Mr Davis being up to his old tricks. In this way, he had come to find the frontbench to be an ideological straightjacket. If he felt Mr Cameron was doing nothing original, he was not at liberty to say so.
He did try. Our Tamsin Lightwater spoke the truth when she said Mr Davis suggested a policy for Burma by which Britain should “invade the country, kill the generals and feed the people.” Except his Shadow Cabinet colleagues thought he was joking. From the backbenches, he can float ideas directly and see if they catch popular imagination. If they do, he can hope to mould Tory policy. In this way, he can argue that he can be more effective from the outside – that there is method in what Westminster has almost unanimously denounced as madness.
There is no evidence that he has damaged the party in the polls, so he can claim that he chose precisely the right moment to jump. But his loss will likely be felt next time there is a Home Office scandal, because in resigning Mr Davis has deprived the party of its fiercest and most effective street fighter. His fans would far rather he was directing battle than turning himself into a Mark II version of Frank Field, churning out pamphlets on liberty. And there is no point his seeing this as sabbatical if his party leader sees it as farewell.
That is why, 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 his problem is a fairly substantial one: that Mr Cameron is now determined that there should be no route back.