David Davis is a Conservative heavyweight. Peter Campbell meets him to discuss resigning from Parliament, the death penalty, and why Jacqui Smith just has to go.
“If I had written this government a script to prove me right about their oppressive nature, then I would have said ‘arrest an MP’.” The Damien Green affair is just one area where David Davis has found himself involved heavily in the public eye since resigning his seat in Parliament over the government’s proposed 42 day detention bill last year. He is very conscious of what he forfeited when he undertook the decision to leave.
“To make the logic simpler, I had to think, ‘is this worth paying the price, that I may lose my position, my job, and my place in Parliament?’ And the answer was yes, and that’s the basis on which I made the decision.”
“Once you have bought a house, you don’t spend your time worrying about the price. If you do, it’s psychologically harmful. So that was the approach that I took to that.”
Davis did not have the start to life that many on the Conservative frontbenches have traditionally enjoyed. Raised by a single mother on a council estate, he joined the Territorial Army’s 21 SAS Regiment in order to pay for his A level re-sits. After a phenomenally successful stint in business, he entered Parliament in 1987.
Having held a post in the Foreign Office, Davis was given the briefing of Shadow Home Secretary by Michael Howard on his appointment as party leader in 2003. Two years later, he started as the front runner for the Tory leadership after Howard stepped down. On September 29, both Davis and Cameron launched campaigns to become leader.
“David was always a serious contender. The thing to remember was that in previous leadership contests, the unexpected person always won. People didn’t expect [William] Hague to win, and they didn’t expect [Iain] Duncan-Smith to win. The norm is that the favourite doesn’t win.”
At the time, it was noted that there was limited difference between the two in terms of policy. Would a Davis Conservative Party have played out differently to Cameron’s?
“It would be very similar to a Cameron one,” he laughs. “We have slightly different views on the civil liberties issues, we have slightly differing views over tax policy, I would be more inclined to have a lower tax policy, but I can see that even Margaret Thatcher had to put taxes up.”
Davis then returns to the issue that has been seen to define his political career in the last 12 months, and which may well end up defining his image in history; civil liberties.
“You won’t often find me being Marxist about many things, but circumstances do determine what political leaders can do, and the circumstances at the moment are all about the recession. What we’ve done in the last year is stopped mindless authoritarianism becoming part of the reaction to the recession. The most authoritarian times are when you have recession and depressions – it’s not an accident that Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany grew up during depressions, so we’ve managed to herd that off.”
He shrugs off the various critical responses to his resignation quite casually: “The real purpose of the resignation was to get people to focus on the issue for long enough. One of the reasons why 42 days is popular with governments is that people don’t think about it very much. Lock terrorists up for 42 days? Of course: 42 years is too short!”
“But then when they’re made to think long enough about it they realise that they’re not dealing with terrorists, but terrorist suspects; and then they might be innocent; and then that would mean innocent people being locked up for six weeks.”
The proposals were designed to allow the government to lock up terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge or trial. Having previously failed to achieve 90 days under Blair, Davis fears that the government are merely working their way up to the same level via “56 days, 70 days, then 90 days.” Davis amens the phrase used by Shami Chakrabarti to describe the situation: like frogs in boiling water.
The move, while seemingly cutting short Davis’ ministerial career, has reaped benefits that he did not envisage at the time of decision.
“I find I am in the papers and on the radio more now that I was as Shadow Home Secretary. That’s not so I can get my name in the papers, but because I have the influence to be able to push issues.”
This comes in stark contrast to his time with a portfolio, as he now finds himself freer to pursue the interests that he wishes to promote.
“For the last twenty years I have been ‘on duty’ seven days a week, 50 weeks a year, often 52 weeks a year, just because of the things that I did. I was Shadow Home Secretary, when any time you have a terrorist event or a situation that could blow up; or when I was Party Chairman, when you could have a political issue that could blow up; or when I was on public accounts. All those issues had a permanent demand aspect. Now at Christmas I can switch off the phone for three weeks.”
Davis is, however, very keen to avoid the image of a one trick pony. His areas of interest have spread from torture and DNA databases to the war in Afghanistan and British racial integration. “One piece of advice I was given by both Bob Geldof and Martin Bell individually was ‘don’t be a single issue politician’, and that is exactly what I intend not to be.”
Davis’ personal beliefs, which are known to be very socially conservative, include a justification for the death penalty. “When I was a very young man I was against the death penalty. What changed my mind was the advancement of DNA evidence, ironically, and the belief that you could have cases where the forensic evidence made it absolutely certain.”
He is firm in clarifying his position. “Let’s get the ground rules straight: this will never come back, so it’s not a debate about the reality, it’s a debate about the ethics. This is a point that I have always believed – that it is the worst tragedy for a state to wrongfully execute someone. You must never take that chance.” He adds, firmly “things like death row are morally abhorrent.”
“The conditions when I think it is morally justifiable are 1) When you are absolutely certain, 2) When the person is a continuing danger to the general public, 3) When there is evil intent – it was not a crime of passion, and that the person is clearly evil, and I believe there is such a thing as evil.
“Now the only circumstances under which this applies is where you have multiple serial killings for which you have separate forensic evidence in each case. If you have someone killing three people and we have DNA evidence for each case, then I think you could make an ethical case.”
1948: Born in York
1968: Granted place at University of Warwick after re-sitting A levels
1973: Graduated from London Business School with MA Business
1987: Elected to Parliament for the Conservatives in Boothferry, which became Haltemprice and Howden, his current constituency
1990-93: Government whip. Angered right-wing opposers of 2002 Maastricht Treaty
1994-97: Minister of State, Foreign, and Commonwealth Affairs
1997-2001: Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Tipped as a future leader of the party.
2001-02: Chairman of the Conservative Party. Sacking by Iain Duncan-Smith while on holiday causes sympathy
2002-03: Shadow Deputy Prime Minister
2003-08: Shadow Home Secretary. Resigned following a vote in the House of Commons which passed the government’s extension of detention without trial from 28 days to 42
2001: Came fourth, behind Iain Duncan-Smith, Kenneth Clarke, and Michael Portillo
2003: Backed Michael Howard
2005: Front runner at first, but poor conference performance led to limited support. Came second to David Cameron with 32% of the vote.
Renowned as a politician who speaks his mind, Davis’ frankness has earned him both respect and disdain amongst fellow MPs, but he insists that he is firm on maintaining his stance on the death penalty “to demonstrate to people that you should not shy away from morally very difficult issues just because someone can write a nasty headline about saying ‘Davis in favour of death penalty’.”
This happened in The Sunday Telegraph in 1993, when Davis had just arrived in the post of Shadow Home Secretary. “I could easily sidestep this [question], but I took the view that it is ethically the right thing for people to understand the way I address the problem. There was lots of uproar from commentators, but on Monday most of the newspapers looked at the argument and said ‘well why shouldn’t he have this viewpoint, given that 70% of the public agree with him?’”
Davis has faced many Home Secretaries, the most recent of which has been Jacqui Smith. “I have always given each new Home Secretary I have faced a little leeway to work themselves into the job. Just a week after she took the job, there were the Glasgow terrorist attacks, and in a statement in the Commons that Monday, I was very easy on her. I’m not normally. She has not proven herself capable of doing the job, and it is a very, very difficult job, and she perhaps was promoted too fast. That was her first Cabinet job, and I think it was too soon. They’re going to have a reshuffle next month so I suspect that she is going to go. What she has proved right now is that she is incapable of doing the job.”
“So she should go, but Damien Green was just one of many symptoms. In truth, she is utterly wrong to claim that she shouldn’t have known about it, and every Home Secretary I have spoken to, from both sides of the house, has said that she should have known.”
His assumptions about the next election are clear: “David [Cameron] will win the next election, which means that the next decade will be David’s decade.“
“The only circumstances under which Labour might win are a new leader, and economic recovery. Neither are likely, and neither are within Gordon Brown’s control. The best they could achieve would be a hung parliament, or even a majority party within a hung parliament; I cannot believe that people would return to this sort of government”
While he was considered from relatively early on to be a potential leader, does Davis ever think that is now within his grasp? “It’s not my call. Had I still been in the shadow cabinet I would have been seen as one of the top three or four and one of the reasons as to why people might vote Tory. When I made my decision last year, it was a very very complicated decision, and people don’t realise the number of permutations I went through. We decided that the worst thing that could happen was that I could damage my course.”
While it is a decision that may have scuppered his leadership chances, it’s one that he is proud to see as a career-definer: “The great success of the last 12 months is that the process that had been going on inexorably for the last decade has suddenly been put into reverse – what has happened is that the authoritarian tendency in government has lost its confidence over these issues, and that is the big success. If I am honest, I didn’t think in a month of Sundays that we would be as successful as we have been.”