David Davis is the Conservative member for Haltemprice and Howden and shadow Home Secretary(1). Or at least he was until the 'unprecedented' events of the 12th June 2008, but then again, he might well continue to be one or more of these things in the future.
1. Forty-two days
David Davis was first appointed shadow Home Secretary by Michael Howard in 2003, and indeed during the long years of opposition since 1997 he had emerged as one of the leading Conservative politicians, having been an unsuccessful candidate for the leadership in both 2001 and 2005. In fact Davis was the initial favourite to succeed Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party in the aftermath of the party's defeat at the General Election of 2005, only to be overtaken by the outsider David Cameron in the final ballot back in December 2005. He nevertheless remained in Cameron's shadow cabinet as the shadow Home Secretary and came to be regarded as one of the Party's better performers and had been given much of the credit for the revival of Conservative fortunes which had seen the party surge ahead in the polls since the autumn of 2007.
Of course as Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis led the Conservative Party's fight against the government's plans to extend the period by which terrorist suspects could be detained without charge from 28 to 42 days which were enshrined within the Counter-Terrorism Bill. At one time it appeared as if the government would lose the vote on 42 days given the number of Labour MPs who were prepared to defy the party whips and vote against their party. However a number of the Labour rebels were persuaded to back the government, it being said that the support of a number of left-wingers was secured by a promise to argue the case for improved trade links with Cuba in the European Union, whilst the support of the nine members of the Democratic Unionist Party was procured by the promise of £200 million worth of extra government money devoted to Northern Ireland.
As a result when the crucial vote on the third reading of the bill was held in the House of Commons on the 11th June the government eventually triumphed by 315 votes to 306, a majority of only nine, despite the fact that thirty-six Labour MPs defiantly voted with the opposition. (It should be noted in passing that former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe was the only Conservative who broke ranks to vote with the government.) For the opposition, David Davis claimed that the government had "bought the vote" and said of the bill that "It has no authority, it has no legitimacy and it will be thrown out"; a reference to the expectation that the bill would nevertheless be rejected by the House of Lords.
It was however in the aftermath of the vote that rumours began to swirl around Westminster that David Davis was about to resign from the shadow cabinet. On the following day Davis apparently wanted to make a statement to the House of Commons, only for the Speaker to refuse him permission to do so, and so he therefore made his announcement on live television outside the Commons at 1.00 pm that day, to the effect that he was both standing down from the shadow cabinet and resigning as a member of Parliament in order to fight a by-election on the whole issue of 42 days.
As BBC News noted on the day, a "shared look of confusion and bewilderment spread across everyone" as everyone tried to make sense of the news. For a politician to resign from the shadow cabinet for no apparent reason was surprising enough, but to stand down from Parliament and fight for re-election on an issue of principle was almost unheard of, and was even more surprising since there had not previously been not the slightest hint of any such move being contemplated by Davis. Even his closest friends had it seems been left in the dark regarding his intentions, since he neither wanted to be talked about or to have anyone try and talk him out of it. Indeed even David Cameron had only known himself of Davis's decision since the previous evening, as indeed had Nick Clegg the leader of the Liberal Democrats, although Duncan Gilmour, the chairman of the Haltemprice and Howden Conservative Association, informed the Daily Telegraph that Davis had discussed his intentions with him "earlier this week".
As the nation digested the news of Davis's resignation, Cameron was keen to emphasise that it was nothing to do with him or the party, and that it was a "personal decision" that "was very much his" and not a "Shadow Cabinet decision", as he announced that Dominic Grieve would now be taking over as shadow Home Secretary and indicated that he regarded this as a permanent appointment, and that there was no question of holding the post open until (and if) Davis was re-elected to the House.
As far as Davis himself was concerned it was a "noble endeavour" and that he wanted to fight the by-election in order to argue against "the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government". Indeed whatever his own party though of this decision, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg announced that since the whole "unnecessary and illiberal" 42 day proposal "transcended party politics", he had "therefore decided, after consultation with the Party nationally and locally, that we will not stand a candidate at the forthcoming by-election which will be contested by David Davis solely on this issue." Confirmation soon arrived that neither the British National Party nor the United Kingdom Independence Party would be fielding a candidate against him either. In fact it was something of a surprise to discover that even the British National Party was opposed to 42 days, and to discover that the modern British Labour Party had indeed taken up a position to the right of the BNP, permitting the latter to feature such headlines as 'Labour's Slide To Fascism: A Warning To Be Heeded!' on their website.
2. The Verdict of the Press
There was of course support for Davis from such bastions of liberalism as The Guardian and The Independent. According to the former Davis had shown a "commendable lead" in giving liberty a "new emphasis" through his actions, whilst the latter described him as an "unlikely hero of liberal Britain" who "should be praised by all who support democracy for his show of conviction, a commodity in too short a supply in Westminster". The Independent was also very impressed by the fact that the "principles articulated by David Davis in his resignation speech outside the House of Commons yesterday might have been extracted from an editorial in this very newspaper".
Elsewhere however it was a different matter. The Daily Telegraph believed that Davis was making a "brave mistake" which would only cause embarrassment to his own party, and the Daily Express claimed that his resignation would served only to undermine David Cameron's position. Whilst the Daily Mail supported his views it too insisted that it had only resulted in "turmoil" within the Conservative Party. The Daily Mirror was naturally overjoyed as it proclaimed 'Cracks in Cam's lot' and called that it called in to question Cameron's leadership skills and his ability to run the country, and The Sun believed that Davis had "gone stark raving mad" and that the move was a "shabby act of treachery" to stab David Cameron in the back. Indeed the general run of headlines such as 'Labour crows as David Davis bombshell stuns Tories' (The Times), 'Day that shocked the Tories' (The Independent), 'Tories aghast as Davis quits to wage lone war on 42 days' (The Guardian) and 'David Davis stuns Westminster with resignation over 42-day terror law' (The Daily Telegraph) all suggested that this was bad news for the Conservatives and a red letter day for Labour.
Naturally various theories were soon advanced by those journalists who claimed to have some insight into the world of Westminster which sought to explain this surprising turn of events. According to the Daily Telegraph the modern Conservative Party was being run by a "cabal" made up of George Osborne, Michael Gove and William Hague, together with the chiefs of staff Ed Llewellyn and Catherine Fall, the communications chief Andy Coulson, and Steve Hilton, formerly of M&C Saatchi and Cameron's chief political strategist, all of whom met together each morning at 9.00 am for regular "strategy meetings". It was therefore being said that David Davis felt rather excluded from the party's inner circle and there were even references to "sources" who claimed that there had been an "angry row" between Davis and Cameron over the party's stance on 42 days.
However Conservative Home then accused the Telegraph of making mischief and claimed that not only did David Davis actually attend these strategy meetings but that he had chaired the meeting on more than one occasion. Indeed David Davis later confirmed his attendance when questioned on the Andrew Marr Show on the 15th June. Apparently the Telegraph was also contacted by a number of other shadow cabinet ministers to say that they attended as well, and so the paper published (at least on their online blog) a revised list of attendees that included Davis, but then claimed that there were "of course other strategy meetings that Davis did not attend" and that it was these "more private affairs, that seem to have irked some of his allies".
Again The Observer reported on the 15th June, on the authority of someone who knew Davis well (or at least claimed to), that Davis "basically doesn't approve of the Cameron Project' and that his decision to resign was "a bold bid of the type that would have worked for Enoch Powell if the Tories had lost the 1970 election", echoing the views of the deputy leader of the BNP who described Davis's decision as a "cunning but nakedly ambitious attempt to take control of the Conservative Party", and that he was in some way positioning himself as the natural successor should Cameron stumble sometime in the future.
Another line of theorising was that the Conservative opposition to 42 days had been pragmatic than principled, and driven more by the possibility of inflicting a defeat on the government rather than any philosophical objection to the idea of internment. If as expected, the House of Lords rejected the proposal, it was believed that Gordon Brown would use the Parliament Act to force the bill into law, and it was suggested by some that Davis believed that his party would simply acquiesce to this process, rather than oppose Labour all the way down the line, and that his intention was to publicise the issue in order to stiffen his party's resolve to resist. However since Davis's replacement Dominic Grieve almost immediately told the Daily Telegraph that not only would the Conservatives repeal 42 days, but that they would review the existing limit of 28 days, which he described as "much longer" than "it should be", perhaps there was little in this particular speculative line either.
Others even suggested that Davis was either suffering from some kind of midlife crisis, or as one former Conservative MP, Michael Russell Brown put it he had "allowed his one character flaw, his ego, to get the better of him". In fact, that appeared to be the most common explantaion advanced; namely that Davis was on some kind of ego-trip.
Of course some of the above might well be true, but then again such speculation is often driven more by people's own agendas rather than those of the participants. However as far as Davis himself was concerned, as he told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview which appeared on the 15th June, "What I'm up to is what I've said I'm up to", as he denied that there was any cunning plan behind his resignation. He also denied that there was any rift with David Cameron who had been "fantastically supportive" on 42 days, and given him "a completely free hand" over the issue and insisted "I was his friend before and I'm his friend now", and that he had done it all "knowing there would be a price. The price might be my seat."
3. The verdict of the parties
The Conservative Party appeared bewildered and confused by the whole saga, even angry that Davis had acted in a way that was seen as profoundly unhelpful to the cause. The Guardian found "one shadow cabinet colleague" who was of the opinion that "Cameron has treated David very well and he deserves better" and that Davis was therefore "out of his fucking mind". It was very possibly that this was the very same "senior shadow cabinet member" who also talked to the Sunday Telegraph and told them that Davis was "stark, staring bonkers. There is no sane, rational reason for this". Nicholas Soames, the member for Mid Sussex, who was said to be "a close ally of Cameron" was one of the few Conservatives prepared to go on the record and claim that it was "a disaster for David personally. Words cannot express how foolish he has been."
All of which reflected the sense of annoyance felt by many in the Conservative Party that Davis had somehow let Labour of the hook. The consensus within the party being, that by making 42 days such a public issue, Davis was simply drawing attention to one of the few of Gordon Brown's policies which attracted any measure of public support, and that if it hadn't been for Davis's resignation the papers would have likely focussed on Brown's 'shoddy' deal with the DUP and the various other machinations adopted to get the vote through. There were indeed apparent attempts made to persuade Davis to change his mind; according to The Independent of the 14th June a number of "Tory grandees" had "piled pressure" on him, but all to no avail, as it seemed that Davis had well and truly made up his mind.
The Conservative attitude therefore appeared to shift to become one of resigned acceptance of the inevitable, as during the usual Sunday round of interviews on the 15th June William Hague was to be found on the Politics Show talking of how although he disagreed with Davis's decision to resign, nevertheless the party were behind him, whilst Eric Pickles told Sky News that any talk of a split in the Conservative Party were "fanciful" and that he would be campaigning for Davis.
For the Labour Party, certainly the initial response was one of overwhelming delight. The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claimed that "the Conservatives have collapsed into total disarray on what is their first big policy test", whilst the Sunday Telegraph tracked down one cabinet minister who told them, "We couldn't believe it. It was like a 'get out of jail' card. We thought before the vote on Wednesday night we were dead and buried. Now it's the Tories who are divided and Cameron who looks weak."
Perhaps some backing for Labour's delight could be found in the polling carried out by Comres, which showed that support for the Conservatives had been running at 48% before David Davis made his announcement, but dropped to 41% afterwards, although oddly enough it made no difference whatsoever to support for the Labour Party which remained steady at 26%. All of which enabled The Independent on Sunday to run the story under the headline 'David Davis effect cuts into Tories' poll lead'. However a YouGov poll conducted on the 12th and 13th June which included a question on attitudes to Davis's resignation (2), showed the Conservatives on 47% against Labour on 25%, which was up on the 45% to 25% lead recorded in the previous month, and allowed the Sunday Times to run the headline 'Tories ride out David Davis storm to set record poll lead'. You pays your money and you takes your choice one imagines, but nevertheless both polls agreed that the Labour Party had seen no benefit from the 'David Davis effect'.
However within a day or two there emerged what was described as "a serious headache for Gordon Brown", when Robert Marshall-Andrews, the Labour member for Medway, came forward on the 14th June to applaud "David Davis's decision to resign and fight a by-election on the single issue of civil liberty" and offered to campaign for Davis. The Sunday Times further referred to rebel Labour MPs in the plural as it quoted Ian Gibson, the Labour member for Norwich North, who was saying that "Davis has a good argument. You can call it a stunt or a gimmick, but there is a serious side to this. I'm quite happy to join in. I'd be quite happy to share that platform to talk about what I think." Granted both Marshall-Andrews and Gibbons were well-established rebels, but news that any Labour MP was prepared to campaign for a Conservative put Gordon Brown in something of quandary, since it left him with the option of either disciplining those who supported Davis and bringing home to the public the extent of the division within his own party, or of ignoring then and allowing Davis's campaign to take on the flavour of "a cross-party uprising" against the government.
As it turned out, ignoring the issue appeared to be the Brown strategy, since the official line from the Labour Party was that the whole by-election was a "meaningless stunt" as the Party confirmed that they would not be contesting the by-election. This was perhaps an understandable decision to make since Edward Hart, the Labour candidate in 2005 was known to be an opponent of 42 days, and so clearly wouldn't do, and the party might have faced practical difficulties in finding a suitable candidate given that the by-election was expected to be held on the 10th July. But the decision nevertheless left Labour open to accusations of electoral cowardice, which was certainly the line that Davis took as he claimed that "Brown bottled it on the general election, he bottled it on the referendum now he is going to bottle it on the by-election".
Whilst the Conservative Party might well have been dismayed that they had (at least temporarily) lost control of the agenda, that appeared to be of little or no comfort to the Labour Party who similarly found that the media spotlight was now being driven by those issues favoured by David Davis. It therefore remained entirely possible that the whole affair would make no difference to their relative standing whatsoever.
4. The verdict of the people
Writing in the Independent on Sunday of the 15th June, Janet Street-Porter noted that, contrary to the view widespread throughout Westminster that Davis was suffering from some kind of psychotic episode, a large slice of the public appeared to have welcomed his stand. She noted that those who had taken the opportunity to "tune in to the radio (for example, FiveLive's Friday morning phone-in, or yesterday's Any Answers), browse the internet and eavesdrop in pubs and canteens" would have received "the impression that he's really touched a nerve" and claimed that Davis had "made a stand that resonates with a lot of ordinary people". Similarly Gaby Hinsliff, writing in The Observer, noted that "while newspapers scorned the resignation the blogosphere largely embraced it: political chatrooms are overflowing with right-wingers offering to start a fighting fund, and left-wingers agonising over whether to support him". Indeed Hinsliff was only echoing the previous comments of Nick Robinson writing in his 'Newslog' on the 13th June of how the "BBC has been inundated with calls, texts, e-mails and blog comments praising David Davis' decision yesterday".
Indeed as it turned out, Davis was intending to campaign not simply on the issue of 42 days, but rather on the whole question of civil liberties, which he claimed had been progressively undermined by the government. As Davis put it himself, Britain would soon have "the most intrusive identity card system in the world" together with, "a CCTV camera for every fourteen citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it", whilst the press had of recent been full of stories of how local councils had been using, or abusing, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, to investigate local citizens suspected of sundry minor infractions, and of how householders faced fines of up to £5,000 should they attempt to prevent a council inspector from examining the contents of their waste bins. It therefore appeared that David Davis had succeeded in tapping into a vein of popular discontent regarding the casual authoritarianism beloved of the current Labour government.
By the Monday even The Sun appeared to have changed tack somewhat, with assistant editor Trevor Kavanagh writing of how Davis might be wrong on 42 days but how he was "right on state snoopers", and that whilst he might be "an ego-driven maverick", he had nevertheless "struck a nerve with voters of all parties who are fed up with acting as bit-part players in a real-life Big Brother". On the following day The Sun again published a column by Fergus Shanahan in which he wrote that "although Davis is mocked in Parliament, the mood in the country is different" and claimed that Davis had "hit the nail on the head". The Daily Mail also ran a leader under the headline 'What politicians can learn from Mr Davis', which noted how "Four days on, something extraordinary is happening" as it drew attention to the way that the "internet debate" was running heavily in favour of Davis, and concluded that "One thing is clear. His quixotic decision may have baffled most of our politicians, but it has struck a resounding chord with the public".
The typical denizen of Westminster might well concluded that Davis was out of his mind and that there must be something else behind it all, or as Matthew Paris put it in The Times, "In the Portcullis glasshouse we are so used to circumspection that when a politician acts in a daredevil way we don't quite know what to make of it, and so condemn", but as to whether David Davis himself enters political folklore as the Man Who Resigned On Principle or a political has-been remains to be seen.
(1) It should be noted that David Davis (with no e) is not be confused with the David Davies (with an e) who is the Conservative member for Monmouth.
(2) According to YouGov 29% believed that it was a genuine act of principle, 41% a cynical ploy to help the Conservative Party and his own career and 30% didn't know one way or the other.
The above article is drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as The Sun and The Daily Mirror, over the period between the 11th and 18th June 2008.