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Interview: David Davis

Conservative MP David Davis looks back on the moment he quit the Tory frontbench and talks about his relationship with David Cameron plus read the full interview trans

David Davis has lifted the lid on the moment he made David Cameron panic by announcing his resignation as shadow home secretary to fight a crusading by-election on civil liberties. Cameron was so worried that the move would undermine his position and the Tories' poll lead that he repeatedly called Davis on his mobile phone in vain attempts to dissuade his outgoing front-bencher, Davis revealed.

In a detailed interview with the New Statesman, Davis has spoken openly for the first time about the tensions at the heart of the shadow cabinet on ID cards and 42-day detention that emerged in the run up to his resignation. And Davis - who said during the leadership contest against Cameron that “we shouldn't be in politics to defend privilege” - admitted differences of approach between the two men, especially over Cameron's social liberalism.

He revealed that George Osborne was so concerned about Davis's pro-civil liberties approach that he had a private 45-minute meeting with Davis and Cameron to discuss “tactics”, with Osborne worried that the Conservatives would be “outflanked on the right” by the Government on terrorism. Of Cameron's position on civil liberties, he said: “If there's a difference...it's just how much you care about it.”

Asked about Cameron's reaction to the shock resignation move that rattled the Tory leadership in June, Davis said: “Well, he was a bit surprised, to say the least. He said, 'Why?'. His first question was why. And I went through it and he said 'Well, I don't [Davis hesitated] - it's very risky'. And I said, 'Yeah but the risk is all mine, David.' And he said there is a risk to our lead, and I said no I don't think there is. [I said] I think actually you'll find that the public will respond well to this, and he wasn't at all sure about that, so there was a difference of view.”

And asked to confirm that Cameron tried to persuade Davis out of it Davis said: “Yes of course he did, of course he did.” How rigorously? “Well, several times during the course of the evening. Leaders don't have great tranches of time.” But Davis described how a clearly panicked Cameron was repeatedly ringing his outgoing shadow home secretary on the latter's mobile phone. “And he wasn't the only one.” Who else? Osborne? “I'm not going to get into that,” he said.

Davis added: “I put him in a difficult position. There is no doubt about that,” he said. “Here he is, leader of the party, big lead in the polls, and suddenly I come along and I rock the boat. And a number of my colleagues in the House – not just David – felt, 'well crikey, this may jeopardise our lead'. Now, actually what happened is there was a poll the next day and our lead increased, but the point is [Cameron] didn't know that was going to happen.”

Davis denied that there was a series of rows on the front-bench over his attempt to persuade the Tories into a pro civil liberties position, but revealed: “There was only a single debate over tactics. And that debate took place between David and George Osborne and me early on. And we went through in some detail – 45 minutes, half an hour, which is a long time - in a private meeting...”. Osborne was worried about “whether we could be outflanked to the right”.

Davis said he had “no idea” about where most of the shadow cabinet stood on the controversial policy area.

Talking of his time as shadow home secretary, he said: “To a very large extent I had a pretty free hand. I mean David Cameron accepted I knew my brief, and I've been doing it for four and a half years, and I had a reasonable good track record: we got through four Home Secretaries and God knows how many secretaries of state...on terrorism, although we had taken a very principled pro-liberty stance we had a lead on that.”

On 42 days he says “we got fantastic coverage – both news coverage and editorial coverage, in pretty much everything except the Murdoch press. Not the Sun, and the Times was ambivalent. So everybody was happy about that.”

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times