LBC broadcaster Iain Dale has transformed his Edinburgh festival shows into a series of Zoom-casts. First up, David Davis. The former Brexit secretary had arranged his web-cam in a study lined with scarlet law-books. A few hours earlier, he said, he’d completed a seven-mile jog. He’s 71.
Davis began by criticising the government over the corona-shambles. Last winter the World Health Organisation had rated Britain ‘top of the league in its preparedness’ for a flu pandemic. But the implementation of the plans had been disastrous.
“The biggest single error was the failure on testing. It was over-centralised. We were over-proud of our test-approach. Had we done what the Koreans or Germans had done, many thousands would still be alive today.
Why hasn’t Boris’s popularity taken a bigger knock? Davis recalled the foot-and-mouth crisis in the spring of 2001.
“William Hague criticised the [Labour] government and he was factually right but his ratings went down because the country didn’t like seeing politicians attacking each other.
Dale moved on to Brexit and asked Davis to sum up the character of his old foe, Michel Barnier.
“Very straightforward, very stubborn, very logical. He’ll push every point as far as it will go… and he’s very conscious of France’s interest too.
Davis said a deal would probably be struck in the dying moments of the talks. ‘The last three days are as important as the last three years.’ The solution would be a patchwork of separate agreements on fisheries, trade and the protection of citizens’ rights.
He’s proud of his record as an opponent of illiberal governments. In 2006 he fought Tony Blair’s attempts to secure the right to detain terror suspects for 90 days without charge. Davis was told by some authoritarian Tories that 90 days wasn’t enough. ‘Why not 90 years, since they’re terrorists?’ ‘They’re not terrorists,’ Davis pointed out, ‘they’re terror suspects.’
What excites him about politics is the prospect of enacting change rather than accepting swanky jobs in government. He enthused about the power of an individual MP to shape events. ‘If you want, you can bend the course of history.’ He cited Hilary Benn’s performance in the Commons in December 2015.
“He gave an astonishing speech in the Syria debate which absolutely galvanised the house and turned it in favour of an attack on Syria.
Such a feat would be beyond Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer.
“He doesn’t have the emotional intelligence. He’s not a fantastic parliamentary performer, he’s overly dry… but he’s very dangerous for the Tories because he looks reasonable, he’s middle-class… He’ll sweep up liberal votes and disaffected Tory voters as well.
Dale asked about Theresa May and the disastrous general election of June 2017. Davis met her in Downing Street on the morning after the vote. She’d lost the Tories their majority but Davis urged her to stay on.
Dale was puzzled. ‘You were at the height of your powers. You could have wielded the knife and inherited. Why not?’
Davis replied, 'I don’t view high office as being the great game here. I view changing things as being the great game.'
Dale pressed him. ‘Is it a lack of ruthlessness? Politics is a dirty game. You have to play dirty sometimes and you missed your chance.’
‘I don’t accept that you have to play dirty.’
May’s problem, said Davis, was that she always took ‘the course of least risk’. That worked for her at the Home Office but not in Downing Street.
Has he ever sat down with her and talked it through over a whisky?
‘No,’ said Davis. ‘But I was due to do exactly that on March 24. Then lockdown happened. And it all got cancelled.’