As published in Tatler:
Back in March 2018, David Davis appeared on The Andrew Marr Show with a sick bucket placed behind his chair. He had a jaundiced pallor, like the underside of a foot. In one unflinching camera angle, he recalls, viewers observed him sitting stock-still, ‘following Andrew with my eyes, holding my head as if it were in a clamp’. He’d woken two hours earlier with the room spinning and vomited ‘violently’. Unable to cancel, he was helped into the BBC through a basement door, ‘feeling my way up the wall’. In the Green Room he was sick again. Food poisoning was the official line.
But that wasn’t true. Davis had been suffering from bouts of vomiting, coughing and acute pains ‘in my innards’ for the two years he was Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu). From July 2016 until summer of 2018 – when he resigned over Theresa May’s Chequers deal – he had no idea why. His GP worried that it was bowel cancer. While Davis waited on numerous hospital tests and scans, he mulled over the sums. ‘I thought, if I’ve got it, I’ve had it for a year. Survival rates when it’s that long – well, they’re not 100 per cent.’ Was he scared? ‘Nah, nah. I’m very cold-blooded in that respect.’
This is pure Davis. I’ve enjoyed two long interviews with the 70-year-old Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, and his bravado is the first thing you encounter. Often it’s comic. So much so, one House of Commons WhatsApp group is devoted entirely to David Davis ‘quotes’ (including ‘I’m both arrogant and humble’ and ‘I can’t drink orange juice. It’s poison to me. It’s my kryptonite.’) He once declared that the FT had described him as a ‘charming bastard’ on their front page. Actually, he’d used the expression about himself.
But it’s this ebullience that makes him accessible – ‘I’m the last of the great romantic radicals,’ he declares – the sort of MP others drop in on for a glass and a gossip. His cross-party fraternising is famous – he’s as happy fighting for civil liberties with Jeremy Corbyn as championing a no-deal Brexit with Jacob Rees-Mogg. He fondly remembers helping Labour’s Yvette Cooper with her buggy every week at Doncaster station, and was, for a long time, Theresa May’s ‘favourite minister. I am eclectic,’ he goes on. ‘People call me right-wing but I’m neither right nor left. I’m all over the shop. Confused would be a better description.’ Not that confused. He believes he could – and perhaps should – lead the Conservative Party. He lost out to David Cameron in 2005 following a leadership campaign that featured women in tight T-shirts captioned, ‘It’s DD for me.’ And, he told me, he didn’t rule out becoming ‘interim PM’ in the fraught political month of December 2018. Right now, he won’t make any predictions about the leadership. ‘The person who would win one week wouldn’t four weeks later. And I’ve seen this throughout the modern history of the Conservative Party. To a very large extent, it’s a perception.’ Does he have the credentials? ‘Yes. And if this were an application for a job as a chief executive, I would probably win it. But it isn’t. And that isn’t the way the decision is done.’ People are chosen, he says, for a host of reasons. ‘These things are time-driven. My name has been bandied around before. It goes and it comes back, it will go and come back again.’
One plus point is that he hasn’t got cancer. Today he relates those months of physical pain with both bombast – ‘Typical man, I ignored it!’ – and a touch of vulnerability, saying that he noticed that the ‘common denominator’ between the hospitals his GP dispatched him to ‘was that they had short waiting lists for their tests, meaning it was serious’. He told his wife, Doreen, only ‘when I was sure of the data and I had all the variables down’. Shortly afterwards, he got the allclear, but the mystery illness persisted, more of which later.
I meet Davis in a Mayfair bar. His soft delivery – and an accent that veers from Michael Caine to Colonel Mustard – is at times hard to hear over the cocktail shakers and muzak. He’s slimmed down greatly since the summer of 2018, not because of his illness, he says, patting his flat midriff, but because he’s been on ‘the Tom Watson journey’ – by which he means the no-carb diet on which the Deputy Labour Leader lost seven stone. Davis put on a stone and a half as a minister, in part because ‘you’re driven everywhere, so you can’t walk. Then there’s the diplomatic cocktail parties, dinners, lunches. When I’m dashing from Latvia to Lithuania to Estonia or whatever, and someone offers me a sandwich, I eat it. It’s the old Margaret Thatcher thing: “Never miss an opportunity.” Well, not exactly. She was talking about going to the loo.’ And then there was the booze. ‘You’re served alcohol all the time. I’m like a chemical factory, it doesn’t affect me, but it’s a lot of calories.’ He didn’t touch alcohol for three months after giving up his ‘ministerial Mondeo’. He reverted to walking five miles a day, running six days a week (‘I can run at six miles an hour forever’). At his constituency home in Spaldington, East Yorkshire, he gets up at 6.30am to exercise in a gym he’s built in an outhouse with a rowing machine, a static bike and a climbing wall ‘twice the height of this room’. (He rents a small flat ‘a short walk’ from the Commons.) Keeping up his mental activity is crucial, too, he adds. He’s just had lunch with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, ‘who noted I was carrying two books and said, “God, you have time to read!” And I said, “Well, since I’m no longer Secretary of State, I read about five books a week including one novel.” And he looked at me and said, “Yeah.”’
There are those who’d laugh bitterly at the notion of Davis the busy Secretary of State. Davis shrugs off criticism from civil servants who claimed his box was often returned unread ‘with the odd red-wine glass stain on the top’, and from Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave campaign boss who famously accused Davis of being ‘thick as mince’ and ‘lazy as a toad’. ‘Of course he’d say that,’ Davis counters. ‘That’s the nature of the man. I don’t care. You have to have broad shoulders in this game. And he wasn’t the only one, there were a few who said that and they were just wrong. Cummings is not bright on these things.’ How does he see himself, I ask. He can’t work out if he’s ‘just bloody normal’ (‘Tories say to me, ‘‘You’re unusual.” And I say, “No, I’m just normal. You’re unusual. You went to Eton”’) or ‘exceptional’, a ‘machine’ whose energy ‘burns very hot’. For instance, he tells me about being late to meet some much-younger soldiers training to be in his beloved regiment, the territorial SAS, and intercepting them by running up the back of a snowy mountain ‘in just my thin trousers and a polypropylene vest. People were staring like I was mad.’ It’s not a bad metaphor for his political career, which started when he was National Chairman of the Conservative Students in 1973. Offered a seat to fight, he said ‘not yet’, waiting until the 1987 election to run. Being an MP, he says, is ‘one of the few places you can change history’. His own history was changed when he stood down from the role of Shadow Home Secretary in 2008 over ‘the erosion of civil liberties’ – just after the extension of the time limit for detaining terror suspects, which the Tories also supported. He doesn’t believe in rash moves, he says, so he spent two days ‘sleeping on it’ and listening to Mozart. Others thought it a very rash, or quixotic, move. As for his resignation in 2018 over May’s Chequers deal…
When Davis was made Brexit Secretary, the challenge was enormous. He reflects that May’s tenure divides into two parts: before and after the 2017 snap general election. In the first half, he rode high. He was tight with May’s tricky chiefs-of-staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and he liked them (and still has ‘the odd text exchange’). ‘Both were widely hated,’ he says, ‘and accused of being bullies, but I made a point of having a good relationship with them.’ Timothy was a strong Leaver, and ‘a pretty bloody good chief-of-staff. He knew what she wanted. He was able to crystallise it and deliver it for her.’ But May was forced to shed both of them after the election. With hindsight, the big irony is that it was Davis who persuaded May to stay on as Prime Minister after the loss of the Conservative majority on 8 June. She had wavered desperately as the results came in and later admitted ‘shedding a little tear’. Davis bucked her up. Does he regret that now? ‘No. No. No.’ Was it right that she stayed on? ‘Well, who would your alternative have been?’ He pauses. ‘I don’t regret it. I mean, look: you always make decisions based on what you know at the time.’
As it was, Davis quickly became marginalised. Arguably, his vision of a Brexit based on Canada’s free-trade agreement became harder for the Prime Minister to deliver with no majority. And he was ideologically opposed to the new ‘softer’ Brexit that May proposed. ‘Number 10 didn’t just overrule me, they preempted me so I arrived [after the election] and the decision [about how to proceed] had already been made. Negotiations had already started. They had already sold the pass, so it was too late to recover it. In the end, I was bypassed.’ June 2017 to July 2018 was, therefore, demoralising. And he was smouldering as he left the Chequers cabinet meeting at which Mrs May unveiled her deal on 7 July. His reflection weekend was spent at Silverstone watching Formula One – more ‘Francis Drake going to play bowls before sinking ships’ than Mozart. He consulted the President and Chairman of his local Association before talking to his wife – ‘a very Tory thing to do’. Despite years of having a ‘wall’ between his family and his job, on this Doreen was unequivocal. ‘She just said “leave”. She’d seen quite how much work went into the job. She saw me up close in the way nobody else does.’ The couple, who met at Warwick University, married in 1973. Doreen was a teacher, but gave up her career to raise their three – now grown-up – children, Rebecca, Sarah and Alexander. His son, Davis says, made it plain that he voted Remain.
And then, just before Christmas, the world seemed to have turned fullcircle. May stood on the brink of a no-confidence vote from her party after the Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee received the requisite number of letters from MPs. Davis was widely tipped to take over. Did he put in a letter to the 1922 Committee? ‘No.’ He couldn’t, he says, be that disloyal. As it was, he adds, they probably triggered the no-confidence vote too early. Under party rules, they cannot trigger another vote against May for a year. Does she have another year? He sighs. ‘I’ve no idea. Probably.’ Still, it’s interesting that Davis was paid £60,000 in 2018 by JCB, the firm run by arch-Brexiteer Sir Anthony Bamford, for his work as an ‘external advisor’. Mind you, he’s also getting £36,000 for being on the board of a German manufacturing company, which is pretty EU of him.
Davis emphasises that his politics are ‘not tribal’. His grandfather was ‘an avowed Communist – even after we knew about the Gulag and Stalin’ and went to prison for his beliefs. He taught Davis to look out for the underdog. ‘My first test on any issue is: who loses? I got that from my grandfather.’ His mother, Betty, and stepfather, Ronald Davis, a union man, were ‘rock-solid Labour’, and his childhood the opposite of privileged. He was conceived during an affair his mother had with a married RAF pilot in a freezing Yorkshire winter in 1948, when rationing was at its height and ‘pleasure hard to come by’. He grew up David Brown until he was 12, in an asbestos prefab on a York street strafed by the Luftwaffe. Catholic primary school was ‘awful’, the nuns ‘terrifying’ sadists who smacked his knuckles with a ruler. When he, his mother, his stepfather and his half-sister moved to London, pleasures were malt loaf spread with margarine and The Archers before bed. He went to Bec Grammar School in Tooting, then to Warwick – he was the first in his family to go to university – and finally to the London Business School.
Years later, without telling his mother, Davis tracked his real father to South Wales, which was ‘not simple. There’s no trail’. His father responded by return telegram. ‘I’ll see you at Victoria on Saturday, it said. This was Thursday.’ They met for a pub lunch and spent ‘most of the afternoon’ together. He discovered his father was a senior civil servant in Pontypridd. ‘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.’ Davis says neither of them cried. Nor did they hug. ‘No, it’s a very different generation. People didn’t hug each other.’ He describes the experience as ‘a puzzle’, and ‘it didn’t really fill in the missing piece’. So that bit is still missing? ‘Yeah. Really.’ They had no further contact, and Davis doesn’t know today whether his father is still alive. None of his father’s three children ever tried to contact him. He thinks ‘they might have a suspicion’, but on the other hand, ‘there were plenty of RAF pilots in that generation.’ Are Davis’ own children curious? ‘No.’ He switches to the subject of his disabled granddaughter, Chloe, who is coming to stay for the weekend, and has an ‘incredibly rare’ genetic disorder. ‘When she’s in the house, my wife drives herself to a frazzle. So if I’m around at least the two other grandkids follow me about. Jump on my back.’
We return to his illness, which he eventually cured with the help of Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox, a former GP. ‘I said, “Liam, just explain the science to me. Why is it that when you have a problem in the gut, your balance goes?” He hesitated and said, “But it might be the other way round. If your balance goes, that might cause the nausea.” And it suddenly hit me: this is not a problem with my innards, this is a problem with my ear. And I remembered that a previous time I’d been ill, I went flying with a friend. We did aerial acrobatics in a little yellow aeroplane – loops, half-Cubans, flying upside-down, you name it. And I felt better when I came down. And it was a recurrent virus infection, my GP thinks.’ He took an expensive probiotic (‘70 quid a month’) alongside travel sickness pills. ‘And bingo!’ He was better.
Unlike the body politic. Davis – an autodidact, with interests ranging from software economics to ice-skating – doesn’t share my own fears. The Tories, he says, will go to the edge but not over it. And he’s sure Britain can take it. ‘Look, we are psychologically a bigger country than we are physically. As a result we ought to be self-confident and not afraid of the dark. Which is what all these things are, ultimately. My own children were braver in the dark than some of our parliamentarians.’ And with that image of a future in the dark, a lost – but possible – leader says goodbye and leaves.