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David Davis

Position: Liaison (National Policy Statements Sub-committee) 2010

Last Updated: Friday, November 5th, 2010

A few years ago, you could not have been forgiven for expecting David Davis to hold a senior Cabinet post today. Yet the two-time candidate for the Tory leadership is now a fixture on the backbenches, who pops up in the media on a semi-regular basis as an occasional thorn in the side of the party leadership.

Born in 1948 to a single mother, he went to a grammar school in Tooting, South London and then attended Warwick University on an Army scholarship, being a member of the territorial SAS.

He got involved in Tory politics as a student and went on to chair the Federation of Conservative Students before embarking on a career in business with Tate and Lyle.

Elected to the House of Commons aged 38 in 1987 for the North Yorkshire constituency of Boothferry, he was swiftly promoted to be parliamentary aide to Francis Maude (also seen as a rising star of the Right at that time), and was rewarded with a job in the Whips’ Office after making the career-enhancing move of working on John Major’s leadership campaign in 1990.

As a result he was there “at the scene of the crime” when the Maastricht Bill was being whipped through the Commons – something which some on the Right of the party never entirely forgave or forgot when he was seeking their support  a decade later.

Under Major he then served as Minister for Europe (earning the nickname on the continent of “Monsieur Non” on account of his eurosceptic attitudes) but opted against remaining on the Opposition frontbench during William Hague’s leadership: instead, he took on the influential role of chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which he used to boost his media profile and reputation as attack dog.

And so it was that he put himself forward as the self-styled “dark horse” candidate for the leadership in 2001. He came last equal with Michael Ancram (on 21 votes), but the marker had been laid for the future and after backing the victor, Iain Duncan Smith, was made Party Chairman. 

Yet his relationship with Duncan Smith was often strained and he was unceremoniously sacked as party chairman while on holiday in America in 2002 and moved to a more lowly Shadow Cabinet job for the remainder of Duncan Smith’s leadership.

He was seen by some as ideally placed to be a candidate for the leadership on Duncan Smith’s defenestration in 2003, but chose to stand aside to give Michael Howard a clear run and was rewarded in turn with the job of shadow home secretary.

It was in this job – which he would hold for almost five years – that his long-standing civil libertarian instincts were translated into party policy, with one of his earliest acts being to reverse the official lukewarm Tory support for identity cards (which Howard had favoured whilst Home Secretary in the 1990s) into outright opposition. His skills as a political operator also came to the fore as he saw off a succession of opposite numbers in the form of David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid.

After the 2005 general election, Davis was the early favourite to replace Howard as Tory leader and he might have won if there had been a quick contest in the aftermath of the election defeat. However, Howard consciously ensured that there would be a long campaign to allow David Cameron to build up a head of steam, which came to a climax during the party conference when the young pretender wowed the party faithful with his “no notes” speech the day before Davis’s own address fell flat among the party faithful and parliamentary colleagues alike.

In the parliamentary rounds of the leadership ballot, he failed to win as many votes as he had public pledges, attaining fewer votes in the second ballot than the first, as David Cameron overtook him and went on to win among members in the country by two to one.

Davis did remain in post as shadow home secretary, however – although he was by no means a natural “Cameroon” and those around the new party leader never entirely trusted him. 

It was in the summer of 2008 that he sensationally quit the Commons to fight a by-election in his own seat (by then redrawn and renamed Haltemprice and Howden) on the issue of civil liberties. His move came just after the Commons had voted to increase the time during which terrorist suspects could be held without trial from 28 days to 42 days – a move to which he had led the opposition.

The contest attracted the most candidates in British electoral history (26) but the Lib Dems did not stand a candidate as they backed Davis’s stance on civil liberties and Labour refused to put up, meaning that he was returned with nearly three quarters of the vote on a derisory turnout.

Friends and observers of Davis were confused as to what the move was all about: he had sacrificed his frontbench career and for what? Was he not surely far better placed to campaign on civil liberties issues as shadow home secretary than as a humble backbencher? Or was it that he feared losing out on a Cabinet job if Cameron were elected Prime Minister and wanted to go out in a blaze of publicity on his own terms?

Whatever his motivations, today he is quite the maverick figure in the Commons, rather than being a figure around whom the Right coalesces. He remains vocal on all issues relating to civil liberties – opposing control orders is next on his agenda – and just this week he has called on the Government to be more robust in its reaction to the ECHR decision on votes for prisoners, whilst calling for more reform of the trade union laws.

On current calculations, he has been the ninth most rebellious backbencher since the Coalition took office and any dissenting noises he makes about the Government are bound to be pounced upon by a media ever eager to write up “Tory split” stories.

Jonathan Isaby

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