Saturday, June 14, 2008

A waste of a good man

Column published in today's Newcastle Journal on the Davis resignation.


Over the course of 20 years or so following and writing about British politics, I can safely say there is nothing that political journalists enjoy more than a good resignation.

For sheer drama, probably none could rival Michael Heseltine’s departure from the Thatcher Cabinet over the Westland affair in 1986.

Emerging from the front door of No 10, he strode across to waiting camera crews and told the world: “I have resigned from the government, and will be making a full statement later today.”

With that he was gone, his beanpole frame receding into the distance along Downing Street as stunned reporters paused for breath.

Mr Heseltine’s exit – though not the matter of it – was half-expected, but for sheer shock value, the sudden resignation of Ron Davies from Tony Blair’s Cabinet in 1998 would be hard to beat.

The Welsh Secretary was obliged to quit after being mugged by a stranger he had met on Clapham Common and agreed to go out for a meal with in what he later called “a moment of madness.”

The resignation of Shadow Home Secretary David Davis on Thursday was both dramatic and unexpected.

But in the longer-run, will it turn out to be a resignation that was soon forgotten, like Ron Davies’s, or one that altered the course of modern political history, like Heseltine’s?

Well, at this juncture, it is hard to tell. Mr Davis’s initial aim appears to have been to use the platform of a by-election to turn the row over 42-day detention into a huge public debate.

With Labour now appearing unlikely to take up the challenge of defending its own policies, it is not at all clear whether this will be achieved.

The contest in Haltemprice and Howden – once the fictional seat of Rik Mayall’s Alan B’Stard – looks set to turn into a one-man crusade by Davis against UKIP, the Monster Raving Loony Party and Sun columnist Kelvin Mackenzie.

It will be an entertaining enough media sideshow, but by this time next month, the wider political agenda may well have moved on to other issues.

Against that, the apparent refusal by Labour to field a candidate will doubtless be fully exploited by Mr Davis as an admission that 42-day detention does not, after all, command public support.

Indeed, he has already said that Gordon Brown would be guilty of “an extraordinary act of cowardice” in not opposing him.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Mr Davis on this point as well as on his wider arguments about the steady erosion of British civil liberties and the growth of the surveillance state.

If Mr Brown really was confident of his ground on 42 days, his attitude should have been: “If he wants an argument about terrorism, he can have one.”

Sure, if Mr Davis were to go on to win big, it would explode the Prime Minister's claim that there is public support for the measure and make it harder for Labour to use the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords.

But equally, if Labour did better than expected, it would puncture the Tory revival and perhaps demonstrate that Mr Brown’s recent difficulties had bottomed-out.

But the politician with the most to fear from a successful and highly-publicised Davis campaign in the East Yorkshire seat is not the Prime Minister, but Tory leader David Cameron.

He now faces the prospect of his old rival returning to the Commons with a thumping personal mandate and the potential to become a focus for discontent on the backbenches.

For there is no doubt that the kind of issues being championed by Mr Davis resonate widely not just within the Tory Party but also among the wider public.

In his dramatic statement outside the Commons on Thursday, Mr Davis railed not just 42-day detention but also ID cards, CCTV cameras, the DNA database and restrictions to jury trial.

Another of his bugbears is the march of political correctness, and the implications which this has for freedom of expression and other historic liberties.

If Mr Davis can make himself the focus for popular discontent about these “libertarian” type issues, his leader will face an awkward dilemma over what to do with him.

The smart move for Mr Cameron in those circumstances might be to swallow his pride and welcome Mr Davis back inside the tent.

But it already seems clear from his comments about the "permanent" appointment of Dominic Grieve as Shadow Home Secretary that he does not intend to do that.

If so, it will be more good news for the government, given Mr Davis’s awesome effectiveness in the role of Shadow Home Secretary since 2003.

During that time he has personally seen-off three Labour ministers - Beverley Hughes over work permits for one-legged Romanian roofers, David Blunkett over the Kimberley Quinn affair, and Charles Clarke over the release of foreign offenders.

If Mr Davis is not to be Home Secretary in the next Conservative government, it would, in my view, be a loss not only to the party but to the country.

He is one of the few big personalities left in an increasingly monochrome House of Commons and had he been a more effective platform orator, I am certain he would now be the country’s putative next Prime Minister.

He was the overwhelming favourite to win the Tory leadership in 2005, but lost it in the space of half an hour with a conference speech that was as dreadful as Mr Cameron’s was inspired.

That he now appears set to end his career as a Powell-like figure crying in the wilderness seems, to me, a waste of a rare talent.

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Anonymous said...

You agree with David Davis' analysis of the authoritarian yet inept Government, and you concede that he may well be re-elected with a thumping majority, but you are dismissing him already as an Enoch Powell figure on the sidelines of politics ?

Surely it is a little bit too early for that ?

Do you think that UK political bloggers will be able to keep up the momentum of debate over these issues, when the mainstream media's goldfish like attention span is diverted elsewhere ?

Anonymous said...

The Ron Davies might have been fogotten quickly in Westminster but it's impact in Wales is still being felt.

Anonymous said...

To be credible, Davis needs to develop a coherent overall political philosophy. Quite aside from his support for 28 days' detention, he believes the state should have the power to ban gay civil partnerships, to further restrict the availability of abortion, and to re-introduce capital punishment - the grossest state intrusion of them all.
I have no doubt David Davis could present a compelling argument on each of these issues individually - but they cannot, by definition, be libertarian arguments. If you are going to stand as a crusader for liberty, you cannot adopt this a la carte approach to personal freedoms. You have to back them all, no matter how little they are to your personal taste. Freedom can be inconvenient that way.

Anonymous said...

I'd go along with what Stephen said. The problem for me with Davis's stand is that he was perfectly happy to vote for the 28 days measure. If he wanted to make a stand it should have been then, not now - it's too late in the day for empty gestures.

The only people who will gain from this are whichever party at the next election makes abolishing the 42 day bill one of their key manifesto pledges.

Paul Linford said...

anonymous 8.35

Yes, fair point.

The interesting counterfactual question there, I suppose, is whether a Davies administration in Cardiff would have been more or less New Labour than the Rhodri Morgan one. I personally think Ron would have been less keen than Rhodri has been to differentiate himself from London.

Had he become first minister, Ron would have felt he owed Blair something. Rhodri, having overcome Blair's opposition to win the job, never did.

Letters From A Tory said...

I don't think Davis would be a problem on the backbenches as he cares too much about the party, but I can see him fighting to save civil liberties and inadvertently putting some pressure on Cameron to follow suit.