As published in The Evening Standard:
David Davis has a resting heart rate of 42. He has a large James Bond watch on his wrist monitoring it on a graph. An SAS chum told him, “I knew you were calm, David, but that’s bloody lateral.” Athletes have lower, he explains. Then, aghast: “It went up to 71 during the interview. That’s a surprise.”
Not to us. In two-and-a-half hours, the former Brexit Secretary, who turns 70 in December, has led us through his life like a training manoeuvre in the Brunei jungle. We’ve arced from his conception after a freezing winter of rationing to the moment last July when he wounded Theresa May by resigning over Chequers.
The Prime Minister once described him as her favourite Cabinet minister. Was she hurt? “Hard to tell. She’s very hard to read. She said she was disappointed… I think she presumed I would stick it out.”
Since then he’s shadowed her efforts to promote Chequers, waving his alternative Canada-plus style deal in the wings. While May was in Salzburg, he was in Munich. “Probably the closest I could go without getting arrested,” he chuckles.
From the sidelines he makes predictions of “tough times” and “bumpy rides”. “Chequers is a toothache,” he says. “Not a crisis toothache. We’ve had [a toothache with Europe] for 30 years, we’ll have it for another 20.”
Davis resigned two days after Chequers. The last time he resigned — from the House in 2008 over civil liberties — he listened to Mozart for two days solid. This time he went to Silverstone to watch Formula One — “more Francis Drake going to play bowls before going to sink ships,” he says. Boris Johnson followed suit the next day, having given Davis no indication of his plan. If Davis is Drake, Johnson is Blitzkrieg. Today the former Foreign Secretary has published his 5,000-word manifesto on Brexit.
Does Davis want to be Prime Minister too? “I don’t. No.” Who would he vote for in a leadership contest, Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg? “Neither.” That’s not to say they aren’t friends. He gave a speech at Rees-Mogg’s Somerset house last year — “in the minstrel gallery, only Jacob would have a minstrel gallery” — and one lady fainted. “‘Swooned,’ as Jacob put it.” This evening Rees-Mogg is speaking at Davis’s Patrons Club. “When I suggested him 18 months ago, they said ‘Who’s he?’ Now we’ve oversold the bloody thing three times.”
Davis throws his ebullience cross-issue, cross-party. “My politics are not tribal.” Remainer friends include Andrew Adonis, Will Hutton, Nick Clegg. “I had a two-hour-plus lunch with Ken Clark in the Garrick. We didn’t talk about Europe, we swapped jokes”.
He also likes Leftists Alastair Campbell and Tom Watson, even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — “A nice man. He’d be a dangerous PM but that’s different.” They share a passion for civil liberty and went together to Washington to secure the release of a Guantanamo inmate. “I think we flew economy,” he says. “But somehow, when we got to the hotel, Jeremy got the bridal suite.” He knew Tony Benn too. “People call me Right-wing but I’m neither Right nor Left, I’m all over the shop. Confused would be a better description.”
He scoffs at the suggestion that he’s too hard over Brexit. “When we didn’t win the election properly,” he says of 2017, “I thought: all we can do is be utterly reasonable. When I get criticised, it’s for being too soft.” On no deal: “I am probably as expert as anyone in the world.”
At one extreme Davis is a monumental show-off, at the other, he confirms, ready to go to prison for his political beliefs. He describes a “smidgen” of jealousy over Damian Green’s arrest for “obtaining leaked documents” in 2008, but says no one “would dare” arrest him. “They did consider it but it turned out to be much too dangerous. Hahaha!”
His grandfather, who was “an avowed Communist even after we knew about the gulag and Stalin”, helped raise Davis and imbued his political beliefs. As a result, Davis’s first thought when considering an issue is ‘Who loses?’ “It’s an underdog thing.”
He’s still “about one per cent” Communist. “I used to say to my colleagues in Dexeu, ‘We are going to run this like a Stalinist cell, I will tell you everything but if you leak any of it you’re executed.” He uses eruptions of laughter as punctuation.
His grandfather read him the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam — which he recites — and “the rude version” of the Red Flag: ‘The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.’”
It’s a long way from the privileged Tory stereotype. Born to a single mother in Yorkshire, they lived in an asbestos pre-fab on a street that had been strafed and bulldozed. He didn’t feel poor; he didn’t feel cold. But he has the scars of battle re-enactments he played with dustbin lids and broom sticks. School was “awful”. The nuns who taught, “terrifying”: “I remember someone being beaten in front of the school for not going to church — Catholics! And being hit over the knuckles with a ruler.” When he was asked to copy a stick person from the board, Davis sat immobile with his pencil. “She said: ‘David, you haven’t drawn anything’. I said: ‘Can’t’. She said: ‘You can, David’. So I said: ‘Won’t’. Crack!”
Back then he was David Brown. When his mother Betty married Ronald Davis, a half-sister was born and Davis was adopted. The family was “rock-solid Labour”: Ronald a union man, father of the chapel, shop steward. Later they moved to London. Malt loaf and margarine was “a treat” but there were “rough” fights in the bombsites. Every night before bed he listened to the Archers.
What about his real dad? He has said he’s only met him once but steadfastly refused to reveal details. Has he forgiven him for leaving his mother pregnant? “Think of the background,” he says. “End of the Second World War; rationing; York full of RAF airmen. I was conceived the spring after that bitter winter of 1947. Food was short. To be cruel, pleasure was hard to come by.”
It is not for us to judge, he reasons. “We can’t imagine it. And what did I expect him to do once I was conceived? He was married, at least two children. It wasn’t in my interests but he did the right thing, I’m afraid.”
For his mum, “it was a forbidden subject.” The stigma was “huge”. “I’m quite lucky I got born, and wasn’t put out to adoption.” Did he invent a hero father to fill the space? “No. When you’re four, five, six what is, is.”
But years later, without his mother’s knowledge, he tracked his father down to south Wales and discovered that he was a senior civil servant in Pontypridd. It was pre-Google so the closest comparison he can think of is — typical Davis — Day of The Jackal, “hunting through the birth certificates at Somerset House, and the Salvation Army and the DSS. He responded instantly to my telegram: ‘I’ll see you at Victoria on Saturday.’ This was Thursday.”
When they met, at lunchtime in the pub, “I shook his hand. There was no hug, this was very different generation.” Father and son spent most of the afternoon together and, “I sort of liked him. He was charming. He was a good conversationalist. He was very intelligent. I think he was nervous. If I think about it now I am unsurprised he was nervous. At the time he was still married with three children. So I kept it [secret].”
Did he cry? “No. It was a sort of puzzle.” Did he feel he’d recovered a missing piece? “There’s a little bit of that but it didn’t really fill in the missing piece.” So is that bit still missing? “Yeah. Really.” He doesn’t know if his father is still alive. Would he be likely to hear? “No. He may be dead already.”
His mother hadn’t known about the meeting. “And she was slightly cross. Embarrassed and cross. Truthfully I don’t know if she knew how to cope with it. It’s a big thing.”
Davis married Doreen, who he met at Warwick university in 1973, and has three grown-up children. He says there’s a “Chinese wall” between them and his political life, although he concedes Doreen encouraged him to resign because she’d seen how hard he worked, only for May to favour the advice of Olly Robbins and her Number 10 team. Later he says top civil servants are all Remainers and the SAS (he joined the Territorial Army’s regiment in 1968) are all Leavers.
Are his children engaged in politics? “They have views.” Conservative? “Broadly.” He pauses. “My son is very much a Remainer. I haven’t asked the others how they voted.” His son volunteered this? Davis hums, then pulls a face that says, “Oh, yes.”
We’re in his office in Westminster — up 39 winding steps and behind the mosaic for St David for Wales in Central Lobby. It’s sparse: three shelves of books. His old office was covered with pictures of Gladstone. He loves an anecdote, sometimes an anecdote within an anecdote. Often sentences begin, “Rumour is…” He calls European colleagues “you continental chaps” and matrons “middle-aged nurses”. He bet £200 on Leave winning the referendum and won £1,000. What did he spend it on? “Drink. It paid for the cocktail party in our department.”
He’s funny. He says he wasn’t “a bit” surprised when news broke in 2002 that John Major had had an affair. But when he heard it was Edwina Currie, “I nearly drove off the road.” Back-pedalling, he adds: “John is a nice, almost tactile, man. He’s very friendly. Some people you think, ‘nah’, others you think… “ He stalls. “It’s not a condemnation. He’s a sensual man.”
Given that hobbies include rock-climbing, paragliding and re-enacting his SAS training in the Brecon Beacons, it’s unsurprising his nicknames include “Basher”. Jean-Claude Juncker calls him “Gangster.” William Hague described him as a Spitfire pilot you can’t shake off.
“You can learn courage,” he argues. More important than the SAS was walking out of home after a colossal row with his stepfather, sleeping rough that night then going to university with no money. “I was damned if I wasn’t going to go to university.”
“If something matters, it doesn’t matter how frightened you are, you’ve got to damn well do it. I am not fearless, no one is. But to give the impression that you are is useful in politics — the whips never bother me.” Then he pauses. “That’s a very self-important thing to say. But politicians come with a natural degree of conceit.”