Alex Massie

David Davis: Principled Troubador or Egomaniac?

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Everyone agreed that David Davis's resignation yesterday was extraordinary political theatre and that it would be a rash man who predicted its consequences. Some pundits were prepared to acknowledge the bravura  - even the foolhardy courage - of Davis's decision to risk ridicule and disaster on a supposedly quixotic personal crusade but, as the presses rooled and Friday's editorials and analysis columns were pinged onto the internet, something remarkable happened: after a day spent wondering how brave a man must be to predict the consequences of Davis's actions, the Westminster press corps and its gaggle of pundits and metropolitan swells came to a single conclusion: David Davis must be mad.

Dissenting voices are hard to find. Almost to a man (and woman) Westminster has a) acknowledged that this takes us into unchartered waters and b) declared this a disaster for David Cameron, C0 an invitation to humiliation for David Davis and d) a blessed relief for Gordon Brown. Even if there were no other factors to consider, this stunning example of the herd mentality in action should give one pause to ponder whether, hardly for the first time, the Westminster pack may be wrong.

I do not say that it is, merely that the view from inside the Westminster bubble is not the only view. This is especially true when the herd finds itself in unfamiliar territory. The temptation is always to follow the pack for fear of being left behind; isolated, alone, foolish.  I do not mean to be critical here; after all, some of my friends run in this pack. But the lobby, like all organisations, is vulnerable to groupthink and it is at least possible that, for understandable reasons, its members have in this case sought comfort from the body-heat of the political herd. In America this might be called "Beltwayitis" and it's scarcely unknown for sufferers of this particular affliction to be surprised by the public mood. Fraser Nelson and, remarkably, Simon Heffer see to have been among the few who have survived this virus.

But, say Labour and some pundits, the public supports Gordon Brown on 42 Days! Of all the topics upon which to oppose the Prime Minister, David Davis has picked the one in which, almost uniquely, Brown has the upper hand! What further proof could there be that egomania has caused some kind of seizure in the Davis cranium? Well, perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. These Labour sods should be careful what they wish for. In the short-term they have avoided the Sunday newspapers focusing upon the bribery of MPs, but is that enough?

The public, or at least a goodly swathe of it, may give Davis credit precisely because he has, on the face of it, put himself on the supposedly unpopular side of the argument. In a cynical age in which voters have become accustomed to discount everything politicians say as being no more than the product of focus groups and an innate, oleaginous desire to pander, there's much to be said for a politician who, by deed as well as action, cuts through the chaff of spin and declares in yeoman fashion: This is who I am, this is what I believe. Sceptics will say the public won't wear this, but even sceptics are sometimes wrong.

I have some, admittedly anecdotal, evidence to support this view. It was striking, yesterday, how many of my friends declared themselves impressed by Davis's "stunt". "Brilliant" and "inspiring" said one, "Bloody hell... [I] always sneakily liked David Davis" was another's opinion. "I never thought I'd see the day where I am speechless with admiration for a Tory Shadow Home Secretary" was one view; another was the declaration that "I am trying and failing to reconcile 'The only good Tory is a dead Tory' with David Davis's apparent good health". Now, yes, these people are my friends, but they are, in these instances, friends who vote Labour or Liberal Democrat. A tiny, unusually well-educated and in no way respresentative sample for sure, but not, as the Americans say, chopped liver either. Merely the chuntering of the elite? Well, perhaps, but I rather suspect the public (whom I have mocked on this issue) may grant Davis a better hearing than the punditocracy has seen fit to do.

And consider too that the reputation of parliament  - and parliamentarians - is at a low ebb. The public has good reason to view MPs with suspicion. Scarcely a week goes by without fresh revelations about MPs lavish expense accounts or their ability to put close relatives on the gravy train payroll. All this brings parliament into disrepute and rightly so. And now here's David Davis resigning from parliament on a point of principle. How refreshing! What a change! How admirable! There will, I bet, be many voters who might not agree with Davis on much, or indeed anything, who find themselves drawn to the idea of a politician who risks his career for a point of principle. The electorate is fed-up; it is in a sour, rancourous mood. The suspicion politicians must learn to endure is curdling into revulsion, creating a situation in which an honest man can earn lavish, even embarrassingly generous, garlands simply by virtue of standing upon principle. Is it really too far-fetched to suppose that David Davis might in some way benefit from this public mood?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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