Aptly for a former SAS reservist, David Davis’s party conference will be something of a ‘now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t’ affair.
The former Shadow Home Secretary will arrive under the cover of darkness to attend the ConservativeHome drinks reception (now established as the best conference curtain-raiser) on Sunday night. He will then attend Graham Brady’s grammar schools fringe, before exiting Birmingham as quietly as he arrived.
His choice of priorities, one to bolster the Right’s leading website, one to give personal backing to selective education, is not coincidental. As both his friends and enemies will attest, nothing David Davis does is accidental.
Some eyebrows were certainly raised in Number 10 when the big beast of the party recently teamed up with former leadership rival Liam Fox to launch Conservative Voice, a new forum for those who feel stultified by the Coalition.
Just as importantly, he also marked the end of the summer break with a major speech for the Centre for Policy Studies on the case for more tax cuts from the Treasury. With impeccable timing, the Government reshuffle took place within hours of his speech. Some on the Right were finally shifted into key posts.
Indeed, Davis is quietly pleased that Chris Grayling, with whom he was due to have a meeting until the PM rang up with an offer of the Justice Secretary post, has finally broken into the Cabinet.
A fellow believer in the ‘tough love’ rather than ‘hug a hoodie’ school of criminal justice, DD speaks fondly of Grayling. “I’ve got some hopes that Chris will do rather well in that job,” he says. “He had a rough time when he was a Shadow Home Secretary because he did this thing about The Wire [comparing parts of Manchester’s crime sub-culture to the TV series]… In a way he’s been proved right. There was an issue there, but it came out badly at a time when we were all getting hammered [in Opposition].”
Following the gun-and-grenade gang warfare near Manchester that recently saw the murder of two policewomen, The Wire seems more apt than ever. “Manchester hasn’t got Baltimore’s problems, but the trend is right, there is this trend of the sub-culture of violence getting worse.
“You don’t see that much of it because it tends to be hidden within a community. There is an issue here, we have to do something to get these youngsters off the escalator to long term unemployment or crime. We’re not talking so much about machine-gunning gangters. We are talking about the issue that came out of the riots in London. Because gang violence is not Al Capone. Gang violence is a 14 year old making his way in the world by carrying out a crime for an 18 year old.”
One half of the problem is now being dealt with by another Davis ally, Damian Green, the new police minister.
“There is going to be a sort of race between improving police productivity and reducing police numbers,” Davis says.
“That’s one half of the problem, the other is getting the penal system to work in a Tory way. Not just by saying to prisoners ‘you are not going to watch Sky all day’, but by saying ‘you are going to learn a job; we are going to take you off drugs’.”
But although DD is hopeful that criminal justice policy is in the right hands, he shares the unease and impatience of many Tory backbenchers over European policy.
“The Europe Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have got to have a plan. At the moment I don’t have a feeling that the Party or the Government knows explicitly where it’s going,” he complains.
He accepts the fault lies partly with the Liberal Democrats, but still wants more. “The explicit answer to the European issue, whether it’s eurozone or the more general European membership issue, is a big renegotiation and multiple referendums.
“People say now’s not the time to negotiate with the Europeans. There’s never a right time to bloody negotiate with the Europeans. There’s always an excuse. They say ‘oh you mustn’t make the eurozone crisis worse’. Well it’s bloody hard to think of how you could make it worse than what the European authorities are doing. They are just trying to find one more finger to stick in one more dyke before the flood.”
As with spending cuts which he wanted at the start of the Parliament, Davis wanted action on EU renegotiation much earlier. “Now they’ve got to come up with a new model for our membership and the new model – it’s pretty obvious what it should be but it’s also pretty obvious that nobody wants to talk about it.”
What is the new model? “It’s pretty much a trading relationship with a cooperative not a coercive model. The other side will say ‘oh, you will end up like Switzerland and Norway, not being able to determine the laws that are passed’. Well, I don’t see us being able to determine the laws that are being passed right now, given we are one in 27 and there’s qualified majority voting.
“But also frankly I don’t see Switzerland doing too badly right now. It’s got a growth rate of two per cent and will be in surplus next year. And that’s a place that had as big a banking crisis as we had. But also we are Great Britain. Who’s to say we should settle for what Norway and Switzerland settle for? It needs a major public debate to get the public informed over a year or two,” he says.
Davis will make another big speech, similar in scope to his CPS economy speech, on Europe and global strategy before the end of the year.
He is very dubious of speculation that David Cameron will try to spike UKIP’s guns in the 2014 Euro elections by promising an EU referendum after or at the 2015 general election.
“I’m not particularly enamoured of that idea. The problem with election promises for elections has been demonstrated by Mr Clegg’s apology [for tuition fees]. Who believes election promises any more? This is way too big for that kind of politics. If you start seeing it as a gambit for a general election, that’s what’s wrong with modern politics at the moment.
“I think the time for a referendum is coming and it’s been delivered to us by the antics of the eurozone. Barroso has been pretty about open it, he almost uses the words ‘a nation state of Europe’. We should put a package of reforms to the British people before we go [to Brussels]. That gives us a fabulously powerfully negotiating position.”
Davis also warns that UKIP’s electoral threat lies beyond its anti-Brussels message. “UKIP’s appeal is not just about Europe,” he says. “They basically present themselves as an alternative Conservative party. Whether it’s law and order or whether it’s green policy. It’s like a Conservative primer. We want to watch it…”
In Davis’ Commons office, one wall is covered with a faded map of Europe with a red line circling the inner core of the old ‘Deustchmark zone’. The other wall features a huge map of Afghanistan.
In 2008, one of the first things he did after leaving the frontbench was to fly to Afghanistan to see the frontline for himself. “I came back and said if we don’t change tack, we are going to lose…It’s a horrible thing to be proved right. I would rather have been wrong.
“I suspect that within 10 years Afghanistan will be back where it was before the West was in there, with the single exception that Al Qaeda won’t be in there, the Taliban will be.”
As for domestic politics, Davis worries that the 2008 financial crisis has exposed the widening inequality of opportunity in Britain. His conclusions are quite stark.
“The lack of social mobility is undermining the moral basis of capitalism,” he says.
“What’s the justification for capitalism? The justification for capitalism is that it delivers wealth and freedom to everybody and delivers opportunities to everybody. “When it ceases to do that you start to have this moral problem. On the one hand you have got grotesque over-spending on bonuses and chief executives’ pay completely unrelated to performance, Secondly people are always less tolerant of this in a recession.”
“Britain, from being one of the most socially mobile countries in the world…is now one of the most socially stratified countries. That phrase that David talks about, ‘we’re all in this together’. Well, if only people really did believe that, it would be a lot simpler.”
One key way to improve social mobility, he argues, is by getting British schools to believe in selection. And although Davis admires what Michael Gove has done to date with schools, but wants him to be much more radical. “The one thing that could make a huge difference would be to allow the private sector to expand into state schools. What I would like to see is private sector schools go in and compete with very, very tough targets like ‘You will lose you contract if you don’t produce such and such in five years’. And where will the money go? Where the pupil premium is, in the poorer areas.”
“At the moment, a Free School has to be off the back of a parent. The difficulty is it’s fine for middle classes if there’s a yummy mummy who goes to her friends to organise a group to get a school started. But the people who need this have got mothers maybe whose first language is not English, maybe a single mother with three kids. They haven’t got time to do all this. You’re talking about families that are having trouble helping themselves because life is so tough. I’d give Gove complete freedom to invite the private sector to get into Free Schools.”
Davis would also like to allow grammar schools to set up schools in non-grammar areas, but he realises this may be difficult with so many LEAs opposed. A third solution would be to introduce on a nationwide level the experiment conducted by Sir Peter Lampl in Liverpool’s Belvedere School.
So what’s stopping the Tory party from going full throttle for selection in poorer areas? Is it the fear that a privately educated Prime Minister and Chancellor can’t be seen to be too posh?
“There may be a little of that. There may also be a little bit of never having been there, not knowing what the problems are. If you’ve never lived on a council estate, never lived in that sort of environment and none of your friends have, it’s quite hard to get close to it.”
Speaking of class warfare, Davis’s old friend Andrew Mitchell has been in the thick of it recently. He doesn’t dwell on ‘Downing Street gate-gate’, but does point out that Mitchell has a rocky road ahead in the Commons with backbenchers.
“He will have a difficult time. What does a Chief Whip have at his fingertips to deploy normally? Well, a mixture of charm, rewards, appeals to loyalty – all of those are diluted at the moment.
“There are very few jobs to be given out. They are going to have to steer the Parliamentary party through a time when it is not at all clear that our allies are still going to be our allies. It’s going to be very, very difficult.
“Andrew is a clever lad, a capable character who’s been a whip before. He’s experienced, he’s been through hard times in Government before. If he asks for my advice, I’ll give it.”And as for the people who are beyond the reach of the Whips’ Office, the letter writers who have told Graham Brady they want a leadership contest? Davis is studiously refusing to encourage the rebels.
“Writing letters is daft. We are in the middle of a national crisis in economic terms. It is not a time for introspection.”
Davis may be in the mood for a dawn raid on Brussels to get a referendum. But he isn’t inciting the troops to topple the PM. Not yet at least.