Transcript: David Davis interview

New Statesman political correspondent James Macintyre talked to David Davis about quitting, David Cameron and Davis's leadership ambitions. Here is a full transcript

New Statesman political correspondent James Macintyre talked to David Davis about quitting, David Cameron and Davis's leadership ambitions. Here is a full transcript

NS: How are you? It's been quite a year for you.

DD: Yeah it's been a moderately busy year. As I say I'm feeling very relaxed. The irony of all of this is that on the one hand the interest in me has not gone down, but the workload has become manageable. So for example last Thursday I went to a Remembrance service, and there was a lunch after it, and normally I would have to not go to the lunch because I would have three or four bids from television; this time I turned them down to go to the lunch. So I actually control my life more whereas I would have felt as a matter of duty I would have had to do them. So in that sense life's much more relaxed, but still useful in that – we'll come back to 42 days – had some stuff on Afghanistan, all of which has kept me pretty busy...so plenty to do.

NS: Victory over the Government over 42 days?

Rather interesting – in truth, they collapsed rather quicker than I thought. I had planned my life for the prospect of a six month guerrilla war around a Parliament Act, and I think what happened – and who knows, who can see inside the mind of Gordon Brown, and now [Peter] Mandelson and Jacqui Smith and so on – but I think what happened is this, that before they thought it was a no lose proposition to go into battle with the Government over 42-days because they believed that seventy per cent of the public agreed...Now when you ask the question properly: do you agree with locking up terror suspects for 42 days who might either turn out to be innocent or guilty – if you put that bit in – it's down thirty per cent less. And I think that what that says to them is where before, win or lose in the Parliamentary battle they get public credit for doing this, now they don't get public credit because people think it's wrong, and they think it's politically motivated; they've worked that out and [the Government] felt the best thing to do is get out of there as fast as possible. So yeah, I'm pretty pleased, and there is a sort of secondary aspect to it because although tactically that was a smart thing to do; on the day when the credit crunch and the American elections were dominating the headlines, so it was a page 14 Government climbdown, that was very smart from their point of view in tactical terms; but in strategic terms it's quite interesting because I sense a difference in mind-set over all the liberty and privacy issues from virtually every journalist I talk to, certainly most of the MPs I talk to: they now see this as a Government weakness, and they see the Government as being somewhat uncommitted which are looking more and more under threat. On things like the new communications bill, that is going to be a battle royal, and DNA database and so on – all those things now look much more shaky with the Government. So there's a second element which I hadn't entirely expected: which is that because of the Government's tactically clever stand down, they've opened up the battle on four of five fronts.

NS: On you personally...is this going to be your main campaign?

I was given advice by Bob Geldoff not to become a single-issue campaigner. Interestingly the same advice was given to me by Martin Bell. Now those are the people who should know. And I don't have any intention of being single issue. I reckon the liberty / privacy issues will take up about a quarter of my time. What my intention has been since the [by] election is to pick big issues – the issue of the day, or one of the issues of the day – ones where I think the issue matters and where I can make a change. There's no point just being a sort of spectator shouting from the sidelines and not altering things. The point of being in this place is that you change history, that's what it's about. If you don't want to do that you shouldn't be here. So for example, Afghanistan -

NS: Which I want to come back to -

And the logic that led to that was that in July, we were hearing very optimistic noises from the Government, on the one hand, but we were hearing back from the front and from informed journalists, rather less optimistic voices. So this is an area where clearly there's going to have to be a change of strategy and policy, and I could usefully add to that.

NS: We'll come back to that. On your resignation from the front-bench, clearly you wanted to take the fight to the Government, but are you willing to touch at all on the truth behind some of the tensions on the front bench, the ideological tensions -

DD: Well, there weren't any, on these issues. I mean to a very large extent I had a pretty free hand. I mean David Cameron accepted I knew my brief, and I'd 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...And David actually publicly complimented me at the [19]22 Committee, after the second big debate on 42-days [the second reading]. What was interesting was not just that we won hands down – frankly I expected that – but it was that the next day, I mean you know what it's like, you've worked here, making a speech in the House of Commons is a very good way to keep a secret, and yet on both of those occasions we got fantastic coverage – news coverage and editorial coverage – in pretty much everything accept the Murdoch press. Not the Sun, and the Times was ambivalent, so everybody was happy with that. No if there's a difference, it's not over where on the ideological spectrum you find yourself...it's just how much you care about it, and on that question anybody with ears or eyes in his head, is in any doubt that for me this is one of the big issues of the age. Now it would be a very funny old organisation if everybody thought the same thing on this. And against that David has a different task; his task is to win the next election.

NS: Accepting what you say about David Cameron, you mention the Murdoch press of which of course Michael Gove is a product -

DD: I don't know if he's a product – he works for them -

NS: Although there is an ideological point here isn't there; Michael Gove is a neo-con as it were, very into Islamic terrorism, and there is a different position to you on these liberty issues – and Osborne -

DD: There is a whole list of names trotted out – about four of them – but the truth is that this debate never took place. There was only a single debate over the tactics – not over the aims - and that debate took place between David and George Osborne and me early on. And we went through in some detail – we took 45 minutes, half an hour – which is a long, long time -

NS: In a private meeting?

DD: Yeah a private meeting, just to go over the details, because George was quite properly concerned about whether we could be outflanked to the right, all this sort of stuff, and we went through it all, and he was happy, and that was that.

NS: Any tension?

DD: No. It was an entirely proper debate on where the tactical position should be. Now to be honest I have no idea what most of the shadow cabinet members – supporters or opponents, whatever they may be – what their views on this is.

NS: Shouldn't they have rallied to your support more clearly in that case?

DD: They didn't need to, I mean why do they need to rally to my support. I don't go off and offer views on how Andrew Lansley is running the health thing or whatever. The people who were in the team were very clear, David was very clear, nobody else actually would normally speak about it.

NS: Are you happy with the way Dominic Grieve has carried on with the post?

DD: Yes, absolutely, and the thing to understand – I said, and people were taken back by my response, they said, well you know you could have been home secretary, and I said you've got in Dominic Grieve someone who would be a better home secretary. Watch and see.

NS: I have to just touch on George Osborne. What's your view of his position after the Corfu affair?

DD: In three months it will be forgotten. What's much more important is the issue of the economy, and we've got some difficult times, and there's no doubt about it, in the words of Keynes: when the facts change, I change my mind. Everybody has to face that we've had a change in the facts in the last six months.

NS: We'll come back to that in a moment, but do you accept that to have a conversation about what would have been an illegal offshore donation is worse than, say, what Peter Mandelson did on this yacht?

DD: The simple thing James is that I don't know the details of what happened. I have read the headlines like everybody else. I do not make myself deep into the detail, familiar with what happened. My understanding of it is that George did nothing that was wrong in any measure, and had he done so then either the Electoral Commission, or the Committee on Standards, or the House of Commons Privileges Committee, or one of those bodies would be investigating, and coming to a conclusion...So I don't have strong views about it. George himself has said he made a mistake over it; I'm not sure what that's about -

NS: You don't agree with that?

DD: I have not spent my time immersing myself with that.

NS: Last question on this, on a broader level, you said during the last leadership contest: “We shouldn't be in politics to defend privilege. At its greatest, the Conservative Party has spoken for one nation, for the many not the few. I want us to be the champion for the victims of state failure, those without hope and opportunity under the current system. We shouldn't be in politics to accept the status quo.” - You must accept on a broad level, the sort of mixing with these very rich characters, the Bullingdon stuff, that it damages the party?

DD: No I don't.

NS: Really? It's very different from your style.

DD: Well of course, but I have no time for snobbery and I have no time for inverted snobbery either. And the best demonstration of the British public's reaction to that was the response to Brown's attempt to do the toff thing, in Crewe. The reaction of that was distaste. And I think the public take the view, it's not James Macintyre's fault what school he went to; it's his mother and father's fault what school he went to – what he does with it is his responsibility. And I think the British public is pretty mature about that in terms of how they cope with that.

NS: Just on Cameron's leadership – what is your assessment of Cameron's leadership at this stage?

DD: Pretty good actually – one thing that is noteworthy is that he's grown into the job. He was pretty good when he started but I think he's got bigger in the job, and I think that's important.

NS: And what's the nature of your relationship. Would you accept as Mandelson did with his relationship with brown, that you've had your ups and downs?

DD: No, I wouldn't, I mean, we had a difference of view over the by-election.

NS: Why?

DD: I'll tell you in a second but let me answer the first question first. No I mean it's quite interesting – I've known David for a very long time; Ive known him since John Major was prime minister; we worked together, and people interestingly say well I sort of grew to like him during the leadership contest, and that is not exactly true: I liked him before the leadership contest, I got to like him more. I know it's a fine distinction. But people think there is tension and sort of daggers drawn, and that's not true, and you know -

NS: The by-election.

DD: The by-election. I put him in a difficult position. There is no doubt about that – I put him in a difficult position. Here he is, leader of the party, big lead in the polls, and suddenly I come along and I sort of 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 at the point he was told, [Cameron] didn't know that was going to happen.

NS: What was his reaction?

DD: 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 - 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.”

NS: And he tried to persuade you not to do it?

DD: Yes of course he did, of course he did.

NS: How rigorously, for how long?

DD: Well, several times during the course of the evening. Leaders don't have great tranches of time.

NS: What calling you on the mobile?

DD: Yeah. And he wasn't the only one.

NS: Who else? Osborne?

DD: I'm not going to get into that [laughs].

NS: On Cameron, what do you say to those who say he's just a PR man, he's had no outside experience and that he is in Brown's word a novice?

DD: Well I don't think so, I mean bear in mind that Brown's predecessor, Mr Tony Blair, came to office never having done anything as far as I can tell, and is viewed in the Labour party at least as having been a very great prime minister.

NS: Is that your view?

DD: No it's not my view [laughs]. I view Blair as a great political general, and I think he made a mistake that David is not making, which was – and it's understandable, after 18 years in opposition – to focus so much on the campaign to get in, that he didn't pay enough attention what they would do with it, once they had won. I remember one of the interesting things for me about Blair was on the flight back he still wasn't sure he was going to win, and was stung by the size of the victory, and that was just an insecurity on his part, but the effect of that insecurity was that he didn't plan for victory. I think you'll find – I can't elaborate because it would be a breach of my shadow cabinet conversations – but I think you'll find there's a fair amount of planning as to what is to be done. Now, some of that planning will have to be redone because of the economic circumstances -

NS: Planning as to what is to be done in the event of victory?

DD: Yeah. Bear in mind that what you can do, is determined by how much money you've got, you know, and if you haven't got much money then it alters how much you can achieve.

NS: Forgive me but isn't that a sign of David Cameron's complacency?

DD: No of course not – he's got two things to do; he's got to win the election, which is a mark of the leader, and then he's got to use it properly which is the mark of a good prime minister. And the distinction I made with Blair was that he was a brilliant – as in the best in a century – political general, you know, but he was not – even the best in a decade, prime minister, competing only with himself [laughs], you know and the public expect us to plan for what will happen I guess in 2010, and when you've got a systematic lead over a long period of time, you would be daft not to make those plans. I suppose it's forgivable if you're behind in the polls all the time – but even if you're behind in the polls you have to do something. I can remember vividly when Iain Duncan Smith was leader, quite a lot of the policy was planned then and we were never ahead in the polls, so no, I don't think it's complacency; I think it's professionalism.

NS: Very briefly, what's the nature of these plans?

DD: Well I can't go into detail. I'll tell you – some of them are in the public domain, I mean the stuff I did at the home office for example – what we would do about police reform, prison reform, right down to things like canceling the ID cards. Whole range of actions to be taken.

NS: Spoken to the civil service?

DD: Not yet, no we're not at that point yet. That starts in a few months. One of the interesting things about where governments go right to the end of their term there's a duty on civil servants to ---- I mean I remember Robin Cook coming to be briefed at the Foreign Office and he didn't make use of it in the way he should have done – I don't think any of the shadow cabinet did, because you can go to them and say, here is a plan to do, let's say a red tape reduction programme with the police, and can you draft it and even cost it.

[Interview interrupted by DD taking call from National Audit Office – contents confidential]

NS: That's an impressive bike.

DD: Ah, my six-thirty start. My current routine is I'm here by seven, I go to the gym, I do a two mile run, 2 km row -

NS: So, just briefly then, on politics generally, Hazel Blears mentioned you in this context – we were talking about whether Cameron is just a PR man – Hazel Blears says there should be more politicians like you, with outside experience.

DD: A compliment from Hazel Blears!

NS: Again I bring it back to your comment about privilege – do you not accept that at least there is a perception issue.

DD: Well...I don't think so. I mean the perception issue is an historic perception issue in the Tory party – that people think that people in the Tory party are wealthier than in other parties, this is not necessarily true, and certainly not necessarily the case that it promotes...I mean after all one could argue that the owner of your magazine is pretty wealthy; it doesn't mean he promotes privilege I don't think, knowing Geoffrey of old.

NS: What about say the inheritance tax policy?

DD: Well I'll tell you what was interesting about that policy – I think I was on Andrew Marr the next day, and I went into a Starbucks and because I'm well known people talk to me about politics, and the girl behind the counter said that was a great policy...No who knows what her parent's situation was...Under a million it gives you clearance. I mean if you've got a seven hundred thousand pound house – and that seems to me like a huge amount of money, but in the home counties, it isn't a huge amount...

NS: They're moving up the threshold to £2m aren't they?

DD: Well I don't know about that – you'll have to ask them about that – but the next day, the lady doing the make up said the same thing, you know, and it struck me this is really quite interesting, what resonance this has, with people who are not themselves wealthy but may have maybe expecting inheritance at some point and you know because of house-prices...this is in quite big numbers.

NS: And this doesn't grate with you at all as a meritocrat?

DD: No it doesn't grate with me, not at all, we're not calling for abolition. Also I'm a father, and I'd quite like my kids to inherit what I've earned. You know, I didn't steal the money from anybody, I didn't do anything other than earn it, so I don't see why it should be taken away rather than given to my kids.

NS: Just onto other policy areas briefly. Cameron is described in the media as a centrist and a moderniser. Can you tell me briefly what areas he has actually changed?

DD: Well, the biggest single one is the green agenda, where he has gone into territory which people don't think historically as being naturally ours. Interestingly, the first environmental act was actually Margaret Thatcher, but people have forgotten that.

NS: But it's all about perception, he's now rowed back.

DD: I don't think so, I mean the emphasis will change, inevitably, because of the economy; the priorities will change. You know the reason politics changes like this is not because politicians change their minds, the hierarchy of needs and aims of the electorate will alter. Two years ago people weren't thinking, after this election I may not have a job, a house, a pension, etc. etc., but they may be thinking that now, so inevitably that goes to the top of the agenda -

NS: So, just on the economy, do you accept that the Tory leadership has been exposed by economic situation, on a practical level but also on a philosophical level, the way in which capitalism has -

DD: No. The idea that we have a completely unregulated bank sector is not to understand what banking is about. What we've had is a badly regulated banking sector, and there's a distinction there. Nobody I know is in favour of bad regulation, and that's what we've had here...You know it was Clinton who kept investment banking separate from retail banking – a very very smart piece of legislation, and it was Clinton who carried it through...And what you will see of course is a great deal of leftists in a mildly triumphalist way saying there we are, which is understandable. They may not be too happy with the consequences, because one of the first thing when the growth runs out is investment has to come down in public services. Now as you know, I am very pro public services, and so you know the first victim of restrain on growth, is the public accounts. So no I don't think it has explained an ideological flaw...

NS: What about the policy on sharing the proceeds of growth – is that going to have to be revised?

DD: Well unless you think growth has gone forever, no. And I don't believe that, I think we are in recession at the moment, I hope the world community will stop it from being a depression. I mean they have all read their books – some of them not very well – about the '30s. And they've got lots of advice out there...

NS: And are you satisfied with Osborne's performance as shadow chancellor at this time?

DD: Yes I am. I don't subscribe to all this. I mean what you have is a sort of gossip fest, and that's been translated in some way into criticism. If the day before all of that nonsense, you added up a sort of batting order of how each member of the shadow Cabinet played off against his opposite number, you would have put Osborne way above Alistair Darling.

NS: Just moving on to some other policy areas. Are you concerned the party is not taking civil liberties as seriously as you – do they need to be harder on that?

DD: No they don't need to be is the truth. This is the sort of Geldof advice – don't be a single-issue man. Secondly there is a tide. As those issues come up – whether it's loss of data or whatever, Dominic comments on it, as is appropriate. There are all sorts of issues under way. There is an interesting problem on this, and it is not so much the politicians so much as the media appetite. One journalist said to me, 'Isn't the set of economic problems, going to render the rights debate redundant. When you're worrying about your house, your pension, your job, you're not going to worry about liberties?'.

NS: The two are not mutually exclusive.

DD: Well, it's worse than that, because I said, 'When was the last time human rights in Europe were last abused? When did that start?' And he said, 'the 1930s'. I mean history doesn't repeat itself so you have to be wary of overstating this. But you have some quite interesting international problems with Russia, which are not the same as but quite similar, to Germany: a country that has been humiliated, arguments over Georgia and the Ukraine and so on, and as I say it's not identical, but there are similar tensions there. You've got the domestic subordination of freedom – I prefer freedom agenda to rights – because of the supposed threats – the real threats – well the supposed appropriate responses to the real threats. That's why things like the by-election were important. You know true history, individuals or small groups of people – you've probably heard me say this before – have nudged a little bit one way, a little bit the other...And that's part of my job. I mean 'nudge politics' is now a fashionable term, but if you nudge something early enough, it changes the direction.

NS: Just moving onto foreign policy, and we'll touch on Afghanistan, but just on Europe briefly – as a prominent Eurosceptic, you must be satisfied with the party's position because Cameron is basically presiding over the most anti-European party -

DD: I don't think it's anti-European, I mean you don't have many calls for withdrawal.

NS: Well there are some MPs -

DD: Well there are one or two, there always have been one or two. But what your seeing as well which is interesting, is the Irish response to the referendum. Bob Geldof was saying how proud he was.

NS: You're pals?

DD: Yeah we're pals – he came and spoke for me in the election. We were talking about this on the train back – I don't want to make this all about Bob Geldof – he was just saying how proud he was and one of his fellow countrymen as it were was saying, 'I didn't vote for it because I didn't understand it.' The issue with Europe is democracy and the proper role of the nation state; it's not about xenephobia. I'm comfortable.

NS: On Afghanistan, this is an issue that is close to your heart now, and you came back with a serious message.

DD: Yeah what happened, just so you know, is I started out after the by-election, thinking OK where are the big issues, and this was one, and the death rate was going up, so I spent about several weeks over the summer reading a very large number of books – I normally say 27 – but actually it was 25 and two novels, one of which was Flashman – in fact that Flashman one was informative in a peculiar way. But the point being, you read all of those, books about what has happened in the last few years. I ended up with a whole load of theses. I read loads of reports, UN reports, general accounting reports from the US congress, reports from people working for the foreign office here, on drugs and so on, probably a hundred – plural hundreds – the idea is so you know it backwards. You know in a war-zone, with a history of several civil wars – four or five civil wars – you are going to get people who are going to make a case to you with their own axe to grind, so you've got to have some knowledge. Let me give you an example: I was talking to a Talib lawyer – a Taliban lawyer – and he was going on about how we have a constitution which respects the Koran. And I said, 'Well in the '50s you had a constitution which said exactly that, and no laws should be passed which is repugnant of the Koran. So you go out there with a base and you contextualise. The conclusion we came to is very simple – a set of conclusions – one is that in Helmand, in the British part, we are not making any military progress. We are sort of stagnant, with us holding about five bases, we are not holding any roads, not holding the countryside...and growing casualty rate, so that's one component. The second component who are the face of government in Helmand – the Afghan national police – well, the word corrupt is not stong enough, I'm not kidding – they are almost a criminal organisation, you know. They stop you on the road and you have to pay bribes to get through. So if you're taking goods to market and you want to make a profit you won't make any money at all. They rob people. They are into drugs, 16 per cent of them are junkies. There's cases of abduction of women, and so on. So you've got that problem, and you've got the circumstance that if a ordinary Afghan wants a legal judgment, let us say on his land entitlement, if you've had five governments through civil wars, each of them try to give the land through somebody else – a bribe to get the case lifted...So someone will walk out the capital five or ten miles, find the Taliban, who will then send a summons to the other person and call them over within a day, have a hearing, spend a couple of days checking the facts, and hand over a ruling within a week. And that ruling stands. You kinow, when a government cannot even deliver justice – the most fundamental thing, the Romans said peace, security and justice – you cannot even get that, Roman levels of governance – so you've got that, you've got security problem, you've got a justice problem – I prefer to call it justice – and you've also got an aid problem, because it's so unsafe you can't really do anything proper. And we have put it right – well, actually the Americans have to put it right. But in essence there is a soluble outcome I think that requires big big American resource increase, that will require Karzai being told that he's got to have proper justice. I note today, that he's actually for the first time sacked a Cabinet minister for corruption. So it's beginning to get across. When I went I thought I'm going to come back and face a flood of abuse – you know you come back and say we're not winning the war and they say 'Oh, you're undermining the troops', and I was willing to deal with that. I was wrong – it wasn't just me. The conventional wisdom just flipped 180 degrees in about three weeks – a combination of other voices...

NS: Do you think the Tories will win the next election?

DD: Yeah I do, I do.

NS: You don't think there's been a change in recent weeks?

DD: Well there's been a change in the polling numbers but it's quite interesting – they're quite widely spread, what have you got a five or six point lead; earlier in the week a thirteen point lead, I mean what you're always seeing is a Tory lead, and it's quite interesting today's poll – I mean the problem is you want to be quite careful of micro-analysis of polls, and I put that big caveat on what I'm about to say, right, but today's poll shows that people want to see Brown manage this crisis, and they want to see Cameron after the election. That's essentially what they say. And that's sort of what I'm picking up anecdotally. I mean the thing about – my stats professor at business school once said to me, if it's surprising it's probably wrong, about statistics. And what I'm seeing on the street, I'm seeing the popularity of David -

NS: Really?

DD: Yeah, absolutely, I'm talking about east Yorkshire now, my constituency – I'm seeing David being popular; both with Tories and with others – they aren't necessarily all going to vote for him, but they blame Brown for where they are – there's little doubt about that – the majority blame Brown for where we are; they think Brown has done a slightly better job in the last month.

NS: Do you share that view?

DD: Well, he's improved on a bloody awful job, and there are some aspects of his policies which I agree with, but by no means all of them, and he is going to be handicapped by his own historic profligacy – his room for manoeuvre is tiny. So anyway, no I think we'll win, and I think we'll win with an absolute majority, which means we've got to have an eight point lead.

NS: You ran with the slogan 'Modern Conservatives'. How would you have done things differently?

DD: There was a wonderful irony – one of my financial backers who I probably shouldn't name, said – and he meant this [laughs] as a criticism of David Cameron actually – said after the first conference after he won, said oh well David Davis would have done all these things. The irony is that the programme has very little difference. I mean there are things where we differ -

NS: You're not quite as socially liberal as him are you?

DD: No, no I'm not, no I'm not, that's right, and, um, in a way in those terms he's probably more in tune with the times, or at least in the south of England he is anyway.

NS: He's adopted that sort of Portillo agenda hasn't he?

DD: Well I think he believes it, I mean you know he is, it is of his era and generation and so on, so no I think there are some mild differences there, but I don't think they are materially tangible in terms of impact and electability. What's interesting too is that you know he has grown in the job, more notably than anybody, I mean, most leaders grow a bit, some don't grow at all but most grow a bit, he has grown more than most I think.

NS: Is that because he was inexperienced -

DD: No, I don't think so, I mean he was good – good enough to beat me that's for sure. He was a good candidate to start off with but I think he has grown. He has a strong character. One of the things that perhaps you don't see, with the sort of privileged background, is you don't see he's got a strong character.

NS: He's got a bit of a temper on him hasn't he?

DD: Well I've never seen that. But you know there have been times when we've had discussions about you know quite high risk problems, and er, it wouldn't be proper to tell you what they were -

NS: Strategic?

DD: Strategic issues. And you know he's been willing to go down routes that are more risky than others, and even frankly the one I mentioned earlier on green issues, he's gone down a route that frankly, a significant number in the party don't want to go down -

NS: But he hasn't done a Kinnock on Militant or a Blair on Clause IV has he, to show the electorate he is taking on his party. Indeed they say you don't need a Clause IV.

DD: You don't need to, you see one of the things that I think is a weakness in the stereotypical analysis of Westminster is that you know we need to sort of replicate what New Labour did – you know the raw truth is that new Labour had a firm ideology on their hands -

NS: Don't you?

DD: No I don't think we do at all?

NS: You don't think the IDS period was like Militant – languishing with the core vote strategy?

DD: No – Militant was a sort of Trotskyite wing, and an entryist wing, and with a sort of command economy, socialist model, which had failed everywhere -

NS: So, sorry, had you been leader you wouldn't have taken on the party, you didn't have an issue in mind to show the electorate you've changed?

DD: What issue?

NS: Tax?

DD: Hm?

NS: You don't rule yourself out of the leadership do you?

DD: Yeah pretty much. I mean the first thing to say is, a) I don't think it's going to happen?

NS: And if he doesn't win?

DD: I still think -

NS: It would be an absolute disaster if he doesn't win.

DD: I don't think that's going to happen in truth.

NS: And you're not going to get into the hypothetical on if he doesn't win.

DD: No but you know I don't see that, I have...the other thing for me is that I have still got – it may not last forever – it won't last forever – it may not last for long – the ability to influence events, and that is not related – ironically usually when people stand down from a job, they find in very short order, the reason people talk to them was their job. And there was a risk to that.

NS: And you're not finding that.

DD: I'm not finding that, and the issues I'm interested in, I'm associated with are issues which are live issues, so -

NS: I'm not trying to encourage you to undermine David Cameron by asking you...whether you completely and utterly rule yourself out of the leadership.

DD: But I very much have.

NS: But you're an obvious candidate.

DD: Candidate for a job that doesn't exist.

NS: But why rule yourself out? Why not hold the door open slightly?

DD: No no because these things create their own impetus, that's the trouble, and as you hold the door open as you put it, it looks as though, ooh maybe under these circumstances then it creates instability. You know we've been out of power now for twelve, thirteen years by the time of the election, and the thing I want is to see a Tory government back in place, bar absolutely nothing.

NS: Do you rule out a Cabinet position?

DD: Well that's not my call. The way I think about this is quite straightforward. I've made a decision with its associated risks. And when you buy a house, it is daft to spend all your time afterwards fretting about the price you pay – you agreed to pay the price, you know, and I agreed to pay the price. Now, that doesn't mean that, um, well I mean so that's point one. Point two is then it comes down to what David and a new Tory government needs, and it's up to them. If the government asked me to do something worthwhile then of course I'll do it. But the thing to understand is that ministerial office for me doesn;t hold great attractions, and people forget that.

NS: But very finally on the leadership, it would be wrong to conclude that by doing your move on civil liberties, you are ruling yourself out of the leadership completely.

DD: But I'd already done that in my mind. I'd already done that three years ago. That's it, you know, all of that's behind me, that's just the reality. The problem about this is that your profession I'm afraid underestimate what somebody who knows what they are doing can do as a backbencher.

NS: Well, you've done it before.

DD: I've done it more than once before. In fact the most important things I've done in my political career I've done as a backbencher not as a frontbencher.

NS: And you went on to be nearly leader of the party.

DD: But the simple truth is that if I am a backbencher with a Tory government in power, you can be bloody sure that the agenda I'm talking about will be part of that agenda. Politics is about influence as well as power.

NS: Will you ever criticise positions taken by the leadership?

DD: If they arise, but I have not seen them doing anything I think they're wrong to, but our duty in this place is first to the country, second to the constituency and third to the party. I mean if the by-election meant anything -

NS: Was that on your mind when you resigned and went to the country?

DD: Was what on my mind?

NS: That one, two, three, country, constituency, party?

DD: Yeah but that's in your DNA. That's in your sort of political DNA.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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