David Davis turns Labour tragedy into a Tory farce

By Rachel Sylvester (THE TIMES, 13/06/08):

David Davis once told me that the leaders he most admired were “outsiders who made it”. He cited Wellington, Disraeli and Thatcher as examples of politicians who had broken into the inner sanctum of power against the odds.

“Life,” he said, “is a test, a thing you throw yourself at.”

Yesterday the former Shadow Home Secretary set himself the ultimate challenge by precipitating a by-election in his own seat. Presenting himself as the plucky outsider, he said that it was time to stand up against the “slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms” by the Government. No doubt, his motives are good and his cause is just, but his decision to resign is extraordinarily misguided. He risks turning the play being acted out in Westminster from a Labour tragedy to a Conservative farce.

Those around David Cameron are throwing their hands up in despair at his self-indulgence. “Has he gone mad?” one of the Tory leader’s closest allies told me. Another strategist described it as a “massive distraction”, which will “all go pear-shaped”. Most Conservative MPs agree that Mr Davis is putting his own interests before those of his party. Just as this week’s Commons vote on the Counter-Terrorism Bill was, in the end, as much about Gordon Brown’s survival as the plan to extend detention without charge to 42 days, so the by-election in Haltemprice & Howden will, they say, be as much about Mr Davis’s ego as the erosion of civil liberties.

Labour MPs cannot believe their luck. As one put it: “It’s fantastic, David Davis is single-handedly digging us out of an enormous hole.”

Until Mr Davis resigned, the narrative was clear. Mr Brown may have won this week’s Commons vote but he had lost the moral high ground. He had shown himself willing to compromise to save his own skin, rather than to stick to his principles. The talk of a deal with the Democratic Unionist MPs, and the left-wing bribes flung to Labour rebels were a reminder of “pork-barrel politics”, a far cry from the “new style of politics” that Mr Brown promised when he first moved into No10. The Prime Minister was facing a brutal mauling in the House of Lords.

Now it is Mr Cameron’s political authority that is under the spotlight. Instead of Labour, it is the Conservatives that look chaotic and divided over how best to deal with the terrorist threat.

And, although the Tory leader has spent years trying to persuade voters that his party is interested in a broad range of subjects, including poverty, childcare and education, now Mr Davis is going back to fighting a single-issue campaign.

The line put about by Labour spin-doctors that Tory policy on terrorism has been “contracted out to the civil liberties lobby” will resonate. And although the Liberal Democrats – the second-biggest party in Mr Davis’s constituency – have said that they do not intend to stand against him, and Labour may follow suit, the Conservative Party has everything to lose and nothing to gain from a by-election in a seat that they already hold.

Voters don’t like their hands to be forced unnecessarily. When George Lansbury stood down in 1912 in the middle of a Parliament on a point of principle – women’s suffrage – he lost his seat and did not return to the Commons for ten years. “We are really baffled about why David is doing this,” a Cameron aide said.

The truth is that this, as ever, is as much about personality as politics. Mr Davis has never been a team player. He prefers individual sports such as mountaineering to group games. A self-confessed Alpha Male, he has a climbing wall in his barn in Yorkshire and has been known to give colleagues Action Man dolls for Christmas. There was once an ice axe leaning against his desk when I visited him in his Westminster office. Alan Clark recorded admiringly in his diaries that DD had walked the “black route” along the unprotected battlements of Saltwood Castle “without turning a hair”.

There is a theory popular with some MPs that all politicians are psychologically flawed. People only go into the bear pit of Westminster, the argument goes, because something in their childhood makes them crave the endorsement by thousands of people that election brings. Mr Davis’s upbringing was marred by a terrible relationship with his stepfather – the night before his physics A level he walked out of the family home after a furious row. At some level, he felt that he had been usurped in his mother’s affections. Some friends say that he still finds it impossible to cope with rivals who have taken what he believes to be his rightful place.

Certainly, Mr Davis has clashed with all his political bosses – falling out with John Major over Europe before having run-ins with William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard over strategy.

When he was demoted by IDS for disloyalty, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.” He once admitted to me that he did not always have a “comfortable” relationship with his party’s leaders. “The Roman emperors always had somebody behind them whispering in their ear ‘you’re only mortal’,” he said, and it was clear that he thought his role was, at least in part, to do the same.

I am sure that Mr Davis believes that he is fighting, as he put it, a “noble cause” but subconsciously darker forces may be at work. Perhaps the son of a single mother from a council estate has never quite forgiven the Old Etonian child of a stockbroker for snatching the leadership from him three years ago.

Perhaps he cannot bear the thought that Mr Cameron is getting all the glory now that things are starting to go well. Mr Davis likes to quote Galileo who said: “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” Now, however, he is trying to be Superman when political parties need Clark Kents who are willing to work as part of a team.