David Davis is a commanding presence. Tall and authoritative yet simultaneously ordinary and affable, he has that prize-winning skill of making whoever he is speaking to feel as if they are only person in the room. Speaking in Oxford on what he saw as the negative effects of the government’s rise in tuition fees, Davis managed to connect with his audience and speak to each member of it as if he understood their problems, performing the role of the populist to perfection.
His media reputation might easily prompt those who haven’t met him to think otherwise. His self-description as “a massive Thatcherite” could be more inaccurate – he voted against the repeal of section 28, supports the restoration of the death penalty, a tough law and order policy and his former leader’s free-market economics of lower taxes and privatization. And yet, Davis’s own political views are in fact at once more subtle and complex. A champion of civil liberties and an opponent of the rise in tuition fees he is not so much the classic right wing Thatcherite many would have him be, but a more a tangled web of contradictions.
Brought up in a single-parent family on a council estate in Tooting, he is able to speak with authority when he talks of those young people in Britain who are brought up in poor areas and go to what he calls “poor comprehensives and second rate universities”. I started our conversation by talking to him about the problems involved with a university education in Britain today. For him, there is no doubt that there is, in Britain “an obsession with universities” and that the Labour aim of sending 50% of school-leavers to university was “guaranteed to cause social and financial problems”. Davis believes that the idea that going to university automatically improves your life chances is all too often a “confidence trick” that can create significant opportunity costs for young people.
I asked him whether it concerned him that his party’s own front bench represents a far cry from his own upbringing through being dominated by people who were privately educated, went to Oxbridge and have often never worked outside of politics. “Not necessarily”, he responded. For him the Tory, one nation concept of noblesse oblige is understandable – so long as the electors as well as the elected comprehend it – particularly since for many MPs it was grounded on their experiences in the Second World War. For Davis, then whilst Margaret Thatcher was “very good for the working classes”, through taking what he calls the ‘class’ out of the Tory party she “broke the mould” and made rebuilding it difficult.
When I put it to Davis that his 2005 Conservative Party leadership contest was principally one of Cameron’s modernization against his more Thatcherite, right wing conservatism he immediately retorted by telling me that the domain name for his leadership campaign was ‘modernconservative.com’. He described himself as one of the “originators of the detoxification idea” though crucially for him what the toxification problem was is different to what he considers David Cameron’s interpretation was. For Davis, it was principally based around money and the Tory party coming across as a “bunch of rich people with friends in the city who they looked after” – a conception which, he believes stemmed from the sleaze scandals of the 1990s and the Major Government’s catastrophe with the 1992 ERM crisis when the Tory party threw “two centuries of economic credibility out of the window”.
We talked of Cameron’s idea of detoxification and whether it has worked. For Davis it was characterized by his ‘vote blue go green’ image, “huskies and a metropolitan agenda of gay rights”. He quipped that he agreed with his leader’s ‘hug a hoodie’ idea, the only difference being that he would hug “harder and longer”. According to Davis however Cameron’s detoxification has principally failed because it addressed the wrong issue. Through failing to address the Conservative Party’s public perception on money, detoxification has proved pointless.
What then of Cameron in Coalition? For Davis there are “two models of a coalition and the Government is metamorphosing from one to another”. The first, one of “lowest common denominator compromises on everything” is what he believes the Coalition started with. The second, of each party adopting “distinctive positions”, which he feels the coalition has more recently moved to is one that requires a “mechanism for differences of opinion”, something which Davis advised Cameron to allow for in a phone call the day after the 2010 election. This is something that the Coalition has, according to Davis, not yet provided for.
The Coalition’s biggest problem is however, so far as he is concerned, its economic policy. For him “growth is incredibly important to the deficit reduction” and “lower taxes and fierce deregulation” are the way forward. Cuts in national insurance employers’ contribution and in capital gains levels are proposals that he believes would provide for this. Davis feels that the Conservative Party needs to move back to an emphasis on small business and an entrepreneurial spirit. Osborne and Cameron are, he says, “susceptible to arguments from big business despite it only providing about ¼ of the jobs in the country”.
For Davis the “Tory party needs a civilizing influence from time to time” but that has not been provided by the Liberal Democrats, which he feels it should have been. He can see the possibility of a Liberal Democrat internal split and believes that those that he calls the ‘orange book Lib Dems’ (such as David Laws) could play the civilizing role that the Conservatives need. Looking towards the 2015 election, a significant possibility for Davis is that the Liberal Democrats will want to sell themselves as the party that “moderates the extremes of the other two parties” a role that will naturally involve trying to get closer to Labour.
When I ask him about his own future he says, “look if I’m needed I’m here but if I’m not I don’t care”. On the suggestion of his returning to office as a means of David Cameron reconnecting with the right of his party he says he wouldn’t go back “just to be a mouthpiece” or for “symbolic reasons”. Indeed, after talking to Davis it is hard to imagine what at all he could symbolize. His right wing media stereotype is shattered at soon as you talk to him. His pragmatic, cool and charming manner makes him impossible to categorise. He himself put it better than anyone else ever could: “I’m a very quirky stereotype”, he told me. That, I am sure, is how David Davis shall remain.