The New Statesman Profile - David Davis

He is a businessman with the common touch, a bully, a friend of Alastair Campbell and . . . the next

''Oh dear," moans one ambitious but gloomy Tory MP. "I can see what's going to happen: we'll do just well enough for Hague to cling on after the election, only to be riven by another leadership crisis just in time for the election after that." The Hague-sceptics' biggest problem right now is the lack of an obvious alternative. Michael Portillo, since he went sensitive, is no longer the darling of the right, and has forfeited the heir apparent's crown. Ann Widdecombe would be loved by the party grass roots, but would terrify swing voters. Francis Maude, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith are all contenders but - as my Tory contact admitted - a bit obscure and a bit odd. They lack the common touch.

Which leaves . . . David Davis? An ordinary bloke (well - a grammar school and Warwick University before Harvard man) who is keen to chat, likes a laugh, is distinctly unstuffy, has an air of the used car salesman - not what you'd call remote or odd at all. No, not odd, but certainly a little unusual. His nose has been broken a few times, he takes heaps of sugar in his tea, and who does he count as one of his mates, this potential leader of the Tory right? The Prime Minister's top man Alastair Campbell - of which more later.

The hype around Davis just won't go away. He may be little known to the general public, yet his name keeps appearing in Westminster commentaries. Now he has been voted "Opposition Politician of the Year" by his fellow MPs in the House Magazine and Channel 4 annual awards. During the ceremony, the Labour left-winger Diane Abbott announced that she had been told years ago by the Tories' then deputy chief whip and arch-fixer, Tristan Garel-Jones, that Davis was a future leader of his party. Today, at 52, Davis seems to have grown into the role of pretender to the Tory throne.

Opposition politician of the year when he's not even on the opposition front bench? Well, that is exactly the point. The former minister of state turned his back on a front-bench job after the last election, deciding that he'd rather make his mark elsewhere. He is the chairman of the influential Public Accounts Committee and, in that role, has scored more hits against the government than has any member of the shadow cabinet.

During his three-and-a-half-year tenure, the committee has produced around a hundred and fifty reports, many of which have hit the headlines, on subjects ranging from welfare fraud to the honour of pilots who crashed a Chinook over the Mull of Kintyre. Davis's committee has given both this government and the last a good rollicking, tearing into the privatisation of the railways, which, it says, cost the British taxpayer £1.5bn. Last year, the committee declared itself "staggered" by the ingrained culture of complacency that dominated the financial management of the European Union. It has ceaselessly been snapping at the heels of the government over standards in the National Health Service: the scandal of hospital-acquired infection (or how hospitals make you sick) has been one of Davis's investigations. Then there has been the non-stop campaign for more transparency in government, leading to much greater access to the public accounts for Davis's committee than ever before.

In this job, Davis is able to put his fingers into almost every pie, because almost anything has some connection with the public accounts. But it carries an added advantage for Davis, one that makes some Conservative colleagues spit with anger: it distances him from the desperate and probably doomed struggle that has been the life of the 1997-2001 Tory party. He will have had nothing to do with Hague's electoral campaign. Publicly, he remains studiously loyal. In private, he is not, to put it mildly, a great fan of the leader of the opposition. In the Commons, he sits with his close friend, the vivid right-winger Eric Forth, chuckling and occasionally intervening. They can look like a pair of genial wolves.

A former businessman, Davis has enjoyed his move into politics; he quite clearly relishes the profession. One friend says he spends all his weekends on the phone, plotting with colleagues, assessing who's up and who's down, and planning the next foray into enemy territory. An MP since 1987, first for Boothferry and then for the reshaped constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, just outside Hull, he has been a player behind the scenes for years.

Davis is also a long-time good friend of Alastair Campbell, and one of the very few Tory MPs ever to be found at a party in Campbell's house. Their friendship began when Campbell was a lobby journalist in the Eighties. Davis was one of those Tories who loved to gossip, preferring the company of those who speak their mind, whatever their political persuasion. Alan Clark described him in his Diaries as a "good strong chap, very much our sense of humour".

The most intriguing "what if?" in the Davis story involves Campbell. After Labour's 1992 election defeat, when the Daily Mirror - of which Campbell was political editor - was in danger of losing its way following the death of its proprietor, Robert Maxwell, Davis offered to help Campbell lead a management buyout that would have seen Campbell installed as editor. The idea failed, but it was none the less a genuine offer - and a sign of how well the two men got on.

As a former director of Tate & Lyle, the sugar conglomerate, Davis was, and is, well trusted in the City. He could certainly have raised the money for a buyout. He likes to tell the story of how he was late home one afternoon and, when his wife asked why, he said that he had been to the bank. "What for?" she had asked. "Oh, to borrow three hundred million pounds," he'd replied.

Davis is a big financial player and is keen to ensure that everyone knows it. He was a leading light in John Major's leadership election and was rewarded with a job in the whip's office, and infuriated his Eurosceptic friends by pushing the Maastricht Treaty through the Commons. He was a formidable whip, variously described as a "bovver boy", a "bone-crusher", a "thug" and a "bully". The former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth describes in his diary how Davis (nicknamed "DD of the SS"), forced a toadying query to the prime minister on him. When Brandreth protested that he wasn't down to ask a question, Davis replied: "I know, trust me. Just learn the question, you've got to have it off by heart, no reading, no glancing at notes; just wait for the Speaker to say your name, then spit out the question. We've put a joke in it for you. Good man."

It may stem from loyalty to the old firm, Tate & Lyle, but Davis has a prodigious appetite for sugar - he stirs six teaspoonfuls into one small cup of tea. He claims to consume more than 6,000 calories each day, yet he's not a bit overweight. No mystery there: he doesn't just live through each day, he burns through it.

Yet some say that Davis doesn't quite match up to his publicity. They give as an example his custom of letting it slip - apparently reluctantly - that he was once in the SAS. It would be all of a piece with the "action man" image - except that the truth is, Davis was in the territorial wing of the SAS as a weekend soldier, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

He has, however, suffered a broken nose no fewer than five times: thrice playing rugby, once in an accident and finally by showing "poor social skills" in an encounter with a mugger. His decision not to talk his way out of that one points to his biggest failing - a lack of oratorical skill. Davis can charm a small group, but he is not a great speechmaker, lacking depth and timbre in his voice as well as pacing in his delivery.

And his politics? A genuine populist rightwinger whose allies are also on the right; anti-abortion, a family man with his family in the background. Eurosceptic certainly, but not ideological on that. Hugely pro-business. Nothing surprising there, except that you would have expected him to fit into the Hague team: a near-exact match with the current leader's core views, a shared interest in fitness, similar self-certainty. But he chooses not to.

"He needs us to lose big," spits one Hagueite. This is Davis's biggest problem - to convince colleagues that this former whip, kingmaker and hard man can rise to the top, tarnished as he is with the deadly charge of disloyalty. If he does, you can be sure of one thing: few Tories would dare be disloyal. He'd break their bones, chuckling as he did so.