Tories on the turn: Davis strives for policy direction

On a return to his hometown, David Davis speaks to Adam Sloan about his party’s future

Life hasn’t slowed down for David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, as might be expected after losing the battle for leadership of the Conservative party almost a year ago. Originally from York, David Davis grew up mostly in South London, later earning qualifications from Warwick University, the London Business School and Harvard University.

Prior to becoming an MP, David Davis was also a member of the Territorial Army’s SAS unit and a senior executive for Tate and Lyle, with whom he spent 17 years. Under the government of John Major, he served as a minister in the Foreign Office before becoming Party Chairman and later shadowing Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, whom he jokingly describes as “less of a shadow, more of an eclipse really!” David Cameron has also recently appointed him as the party’s Shadow Home Secretary.

For the first time in years, his party is enjoying a lead over Labour in the polls, but accusations of “style over substance” have been abundant. Many aren’t quite sure where they stand anymore and they have yet to commit to any firm policies.

People think of me as being right wing, but I am a libertarian.

“People think of me as being right wing, but I am actually a libertarian, and we as a party are becoming more and more libertarian.” Since losing spectacularly in the 1997 General Election, many would agree that the Conservatives have been suffering from something of an identity crisis, and last May they lost their third consecutive general election.

“The first two of those elections we were never going to win, the public wanted to give New Labour more time to prove itself. What did happen though, was that William Hague started off with a very modernising agenda and veered to the right later on, and this was unwise. It is always unwise though to shift your principles.”

Davis was quick to refute accusations that his party was “obsessed” with immigration in the run up to the General Election in 2005: “I was being interviewed for Sky News and they asked me six questions about immigration,” he said, “question seven was ‘why are you obsessed with immigration?’”

Hints of a change in direction in Conservative policy have been made since the start of the new leadership. The party has recently dropped its pledge to abandon university tuition fees.

“We are not going to reverse the Labour party policy. The funding of universities and having high quality universities is the most important thing.”

Davis also made his views clear on the numbers of students now entering higher education. “I don’t believe in the 50% target [of school leavers into higher education]. I don’t think it is good for students and I don’t think it is good for the economy.”

On whether he was concerned about the possibility of students being deterred from coming to university by the prospect of higher fees, Davis said his concern was “less about deterring people, and more about the social deterring of graduates starting out their working life with huge debt hanging over them.

“But every alternative is more expensive, and this has happened because it is the only way that is affordable to the taxpayer.”

Overall, Davis put across a very positive outlook for the future of the Conservatives and more specifically his plans for being a future Home Secretary. “It is often said, ‘Oh well, this is an impossible job’ and there has even been talk in the last few months of breaking up the Home Office. This is nonsense. Of course, it has always been a difficult job, but not impossible. It has been made much more difficult in the last few years by the Labour government’s behaviour.”

Not known for his public speaking, and having admitted that it was his “crap speech” that led him to lose the Conservative leadership contest, Davis last week entertained a packed lecture theatre of 160 students on a fleeting visit here to York. Of course, there were no policy proposals, but there was plenty of rhetoric.

Many commented afterwards that he offered much in the way of problems and little in the way of solutions. Others were left with the distinct impression that the political tide was indeed turning and that the Tories’ ten-year stint in opposition will soon to be coming to an end.