As published in the Hull Daily Mail:
He is a political heavyweight unafraid to speak his mind. Parliamentary Correspondent Soraya Kishtwari talks to Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis about growing up in a communist household, why he supports grammar schools and his future in the Conservative Party.
WHISPER it quietly, but it looks like the Tory leadership boat may have sailed for David Davis.
The Haltemprice and Howden MP and one-time contender for the Conservative Party’s top job does not rule out ever standing again, but by his own admission, at 65, it is difficult to foresee circumstances in which he would be able to take a second bite at the cherry.
“The leadership will come up for contest again in one of two possible circumstances: one is if we lose the election, in which case it will happen immediately, otherwise it will be the latter part of the next Parliament,” he says.
“If we lose, then it’s five years as leader of the opposition, which is a very, very hard job – and not a very powerful one. I’m not really interested in that.
“And the other is about five years away, so I’m not really interested in that.”
Besides, he clearly enjoys doing what he does, which is keeping his own governing party on its toes and “challenging them when they get it wrong”.
Recently, he spoke out against draft plans put forward by HM Revenue and Customs to sell the personal financial data of millions of taxpayers to private firms. “Over my dead body”, he says.
And just last week, the former shadow home secretary questioned the Government’s decision to rush through plans for a surveillance law using “emergency” measures, which would require companies to retain all personal phone and internet data. Mr Davis branded the exercise a “theatrical emergency”.
He says: “I influence more things being where I am than being onside. If I raise an issue, it gets noticed.”
Surely, much of his appeal lies in his ability to shrug off life’s setbacks as well as labels such as “troublemaker”, a favourite media shorthand.
Born in York in 1948, Mr Davis has come a long way from the prefab “asbestos box” he lived in as an infant.
But the “vivid memories” he has of that time are not ones of squalor, but of the smell of freshly-baked malt loaf lingering in the air and of his large garden that backed onto the medieval walls of York, “Not a bad playground for a five-year-old”, he tells me.
“I have halcyon memories of that period; they’re golden-age memories for me. I still have a fondness for malt loaf.”
Mr Davis was born to an unmarried mother – his absent father already spoken for – at a time when children born out of marriage was taboo.
“When my mother was alive, being a single mum was a source of stigma,” he says. “I confined what I knew and did and talked about so as to protect her feelings and her reputation. When she died, it didn’t matter any more.”
He waited until he was a young man to seek out his biological father.
“I met him once, when I was in my early twenties,” he says.
Asked if he found the encounter comforting, he replies: “There was nothing to comfort.
“I’d heard things about him growing up from family members who knew him. Some of it was fictitious; people like to romance. Most families have a set of common mythology and he, in part, was mine.”
In the event, the meeting appeared to satisfy his curiosity as he never saw his father again.
“He was rather nervous of meeting me, that was the impression I had,” says Mr David. “Of course, he had a wife and several children. I have no interest in damaging their lives, this is something that happened a long time ago, under post-war circumstances.
“He was a bit nervous, so I thought the kindest thing I could do was leave it there.
“It was a time when there was lots of stress on people and I’m not judgmental about that, I never had been – I’m not that sort of Tory.”
Not that he was always on the right. Mr Davis grew up in a communist household, his grandfather disowned for his political beliefs by his strict Catholic parents.
And when his mother remarried and moved down to London, Mr Davis inherited not only his surname, but also a shop steward for a stepfather, a man with whom he had a “tumultuous” relationship.
But it was not until 1968-1971, when he went to Warwick University to study molecular science and computer science, that his political views were crystallised.
“I was at university at the time of the student riots in France; politics absolutely dominated university life,” recalls Mr Davis.
“I had been left-of-centre myself, but then changed after working for a year to earn some money before going to university. When I went to university, my mind was already beginning to change.”
Eventually, he would go onto become national chairman of the Conservative Students, at the time Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary.
Mr Davis feels he owes much of his success to two key educators in his life: his “fabulous teacher” Mr Williams and Bec Grammar school in London.
Up until his move to the capital, the dominant feature of schooling “was being moved around”. At seven, he was still unable to read, but Mr Williams changed that.
“I went from bottom of the class to top of the class in one term. Without him, I might be out robbing a bank,” he says, laughing.
The family uprooted again, where Mr Davis secured a place at a grammar school in South West London.
“I would not be where I am today without them. They were both transformative in different ways,” he says.
It is no surprise then that Mr Davis would like to see grammar schools make a return, and although he concedes it creates a two-tier system, he says the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
“The question is do you give nobody a chance or somebody a chance?” he says.
Current government policy on schools does not go far enough for Mr Davis, who would also like to see vocational schools set up.
“It’s just not as radical as the destruction of grammar schools, which was a very bad radical overhaul,” he says.
“Today’s Conservative Party is terrified. It was intimidated by the (standing up for) ‘the many, not the few’ slogan of the Labour Party and it’s too easy to parody a grammar school system as the few not the many, almost by definition.
“So the ironic thing is we have a private school system, which is selective, so if you can afford the money you can go into a selective school, but if you can’t afford the money you can’t .
“Well, surprise surprise, what do we have? Private schools dominate politics, business, media, the law profession.
“More kids go from Eton to Oxford and Cambridge than kids who have free school meals – that is a hideous statistic.”
Mr Davis welcomes the academies policy, but says “it will take a very long time to work; but it’s not as good a policy as grammar schools”.
And if that sounds like a swipe at his political hierarchy – many of whom did go to Eton, David Cameron included – it is not.
While he describes himself as “a normal person in an abnormal crowd”, he insists everyone needs a “lucky break”.
“I had other lucky breaks and that’s the point to remember – you shouldn’t really judge your own luck,” says Mr Davis.
“You could be a bloody genius and if you don’t get a lucky break, it just doesn’t happen.”