As published by Evening Standard:
He’s the rabble-rousing veteran Tory unafraid of a fight, even with the PM. David Davis talks to Anne McElvoy about the Establishment’s love affair with oligarchs and finally processing the traumatic childhood that left him mute.
Outside the Commons, a protester with a beat box is singing “Bye-Bye Boris, no one will cry” to the tune of the Bay City Rollers song, Bye Bye Baby. It’s a sentiment at odds now with many Johnson-critical Tory MPs. They had been gathering signatures to oust the leader over the Partygate mess, though the furore seems to have cooled somewhat.
The most outspoken attack in parliament came from the veteran backbencher and former Brexit Secretary David Davis, channelling a speech which helped oust Neville Chamberlain in the Thirties: “You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.”
Davis’s office is up stairs in an eyrie which looks like something from Hogwarts. He offers coffee and sympathy about the impact of the winding stairs on my meniscus tear (“My wife has one. I’m now a bit of an expert on knees as a result”).
Davis, 73, represents Haltemprice and Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire — he was first elected in 1987, making him one of the UK’s longest-serving MPs. Despite a reputation for being on the Right of his party, he’s a complex political animal.
Davis is a former shadow home secretary who fell out with David Cameron on civil liberties (and much else). A staunch Leaver, he quit as Brexit Secretary over disagreements with Theresa May on her Chequers plan to push through the Withdrawal agreement as well as bad blood with EU negotiator Michel Barnier.
Davis has never been easy to manage — a career of advances, fallings-out and commitment to battles which didn’t always make him popular with his own party. The relationship between two of the most well-known Brexiteers — Johnson and himself — has become choppy, although the Prime Minister now looks a lot safer in the saddle.
“Now is not the time to talk about it,” says Davis, of his call for the PM to go. “We may return to it, but right now the issue that matters most is Ukraine. It is not inconceivable that a deal will be struck to end the conflict but until that happens there can’t be politics-as-usual.”
Has Johnson once again proved a lucky general in the art of political warfare? “If you’re asking me if I regret [calling for Johnson to go] the answer is No.” The PM might well feel that he won this particular tussle. “That’s irrelevant,” says Davis, a bit shortly, leaving the impression he would still quite like to come back for another go but can’t quite figure out when.
The Ukraine crisis has brought London and the Tory Party’s relationship with Russian oligarchs into stark relief. Does he feel the Conservatives have a case to answer on sleazy dependency on Russian-born donors and turning a blind eye to the source of illicit wealth?
“I am as critical of my party as anyone,” he says, “but it is not just the Tories. The British establishment was seduced by them from Blair onwards. They held glamorous parties and gave money to charities — all in the name of getting into society successfully. A lot of us were approached to be on boards for Russian-based companies. They bought up the City and they tried to buy influence wherever they could. We got too dazzled by money because we were in dire straits then financially and it reflected a broader sense that it was okay to turn a blind eye.”
As to skirmishes on the home front, what does he make of Priti Patel, the Home Secretary who liberals love to hate for her brusqueness and hardline against asylum seekers? “I don’t think she’s wrong about a requirement to be cautious because it is sadly the case that hostile states insert people into the groupings of refugees and it only takes two or three people in a stream of a million to cause a serious problem.”
Yet he doesn’t back Patel on a cornerstone of her upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill — namely the plan to put asylum seekers into off-shore processing centres, with Ghana and Moldova mooted as possible locations. “It’s a terrible idea,” says Davis. “These places give rise to assaults — including on children — and they don’t solve the basic problem.”
He reckons the Ukraine crisis will kill-off the Nationality and Borders Bill when it comes back from the Lords next week to the Commons.
Davis has always been a sole trader in politics — the pugnaciousness is probably the result of an upbringing he’s only recently begun opening up about. He was born in 1948, the son of a single mother in Tooting. Initially raised by his grandparents, there was “a rift in the family” when his mother Betty wanted to resume caring for him, and he returned to live with her and his stepfather Ronald, “which was frankly a difficult relationship and often violent. We were living in terrible conditions too and I went to a succession of schools”.
He’s only started talking to his sister about it all “in the last month”. “The point was that the (single) mum was not allowed to bond with her child — really cruel. I don’t remember my mother till I was six. I was mute for six months. Then this teacher, Mr Williams, decided that there was no reason why I couldn’t learn. He took me from near the bottom of the class for reading to the top and onto grammar school.”
Davis went on to Warwick University, where he helped found a student radio station, then a career in the senior echelons of Tate and Lyle. But politics was his love affair. Davis’s own leadership ambitions failed twice — one dry run in 2001 when Iain Duncan Smith won and against David Cameron in 2005. “
What I learned from that is that the next leader is usually someone few people are focusing on at the time.” He’s not convinced either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss will end up in the top job. There is too much focus on them, which will make them enemies and expose them too much.
Truss, he thinks, has “made an impact as a modern version of Thatcher,” (I don’t totally get the impression that he deems her a leading player in a time of crisis). “She got the job at a difficult time.”
Gove is not his cup of tea. He rates the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi. They are making common cause on planned post-Covid education reforms.
How does the veteran of parliamentary battles view Labour leader Keir Starmer? “He hasn’t mastered the high theatre of politics. You require a variety of things and work rate is important but so is the ability to strike a blow and master the drama of the Commons.”
I wonder how he feels about his old enemy Dominic Cummings, who described Davis as “lazy as a toad” and “thick as mince”. He throws back his head and delivers a throaty chuckle. “I met him when he started out in politics. He has a box of tricks and one is the assumption that others in politics are not numerate and know nothing about scientific methods. Well, I studied molecular biology and computer science and have an MBA, so I think I can deal with that.”
Still, they were united in Brexit. How’s that going? “I disliked a lot of the Vote Leave approach and the claim that £350 million would be saved for the NHS was awful. It didn’t change anyone’s minds, I wouldn’t have used it.”
He thinks Covid stymied Brexit’s chance to allow the UK to “take the advantages” of liberty from the EU. “I am still a Brexiteer, I think you’d need to ask me again in five years for a full picture”.