Dehenna Davison is not what you picture when you imagine a Conservative MP. Female, 28, and from a council estate in Sheffield, she is one of the 2019 intake who demolished the “Red Wall” for Boris Johnson and now represents a seat – Bishop Auckland, in County Durham – that went Tory for the first time in its 134-year history.
So it’s no surprise that her office, located in the eaves of parliament, feels more like a student common room than an MP’s workplace. It’s bedecked with fairy lights, the walls covered in posters of dogs, cats and Taylor Swift. There’s a guitar in the corner, sci-fi memorabilia on the shelves, and a sign on the low sash window reading “DO NOT FALL OUT”.
“I used to sit here leaning out, and they were a bit scared,” she said, by way of explanation. “This whole window fell on me once and I couldn’t be bothered to report it.”
I met Davison in her office to try to figure her out: what she stands for, and what it says about the changing face of the Conservative Party that she feels at home in it. It’s hard to pin her down. The Tories won the Red Wall with a mantra of levelling up and bold promises about state investment in left-behind communities. Yet Davison cites the Thatcherite poster-girl Liz Truss as a role model, and co-chairs the Free Market Forum, a group of MPs and peers who aim to “encourage free market thinking” and provide “intellectual firepower and a public platform to proponents of classical liberalism”. Pressed on this discrepancy, Davison insisted the two “are not mutually exclusive”.
“States aren’t always the answer to fixing problems, it often comes down to private enterprise and local community groups,” she argued. “I think we obsess sometimes over funding, we obsess over this town’s getting this many million pounds. But it’s not always funding that’s the answer.” Minutes later she told me how proud she is to have secured £33.2m from the Stronger Towns Fund for her patch.
Davison is good at giving textbook Conservative responses full of buzzwords such as “meritocracy”, “aspiration” and “responsibility”, and mentions “jobs” every couple of minutes. She refused to be drawn into a debate about Tory factions (“You’re trying to label me, shocking!”), and appeared to feel no tension about her purported Thatcherite ideology and her “really liberal” social views. “We’re all seeking the same goals at the end of the day,” she said, which might come as news to many within the party.
In October Davison made headlines by coming out as bisexual in an interview on GB News – the channel on which she hosts alongside Nigel Farage. Despite rumours, she insisted this revelation was nothing to do with trying to attract media attention. “I was asked a question about dating and I gave an honest answer,” she said. “But I was surprised by the scale of the reaction, I must admit.”
That reaction was overwhelmingly positive, but it also highlighted Davison’s status as the first openly bisexual Conservative woman in the House of Commons. The Tory party, with its historic hostility to gay rights and its current “war on woke”, has a reputation for being less than welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
“This happened before I was born!” Davison exclaimed when asked about Section 28 (the Thatcher-era policy that banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, including in schools). “This is not the Conservative Party that I joined, it’s not the Conservative Party that I’ve had my political life growing up with.
“We were the party that finally introduced gay marriage, which was an incredible thing and has made so many people so happy,” she continued. “There are these jokes all the time that if you go to party conference you see just how gay the Conservative Party is, and that’s about right.”
One reason Davison has garnered such attention, aside from being young and photogenic, is “all the X-Factor sob story stuff” in her life. When she was 13 her father was killed by a single punch in a pub fight. Fifteen years later Davison set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on one-punch assaults, to raise awareness and consider sentencing reform. She also got married at just 24, to a man 35 years older than her – enough of an age gap for the couple to feature in a 2018 Channel 4 documentary about taboo relationships. They have since split up, hence Davison’s candid discussion on GB News about her dating life.
However, it’s not just that her life story resembles a soap opera. After the Tories’ 2019 landslide victory, MPs such as Davison are being used as a barometer of how the UK electoral landscape is changing. And with Johnson’s big agenda not quite panning out as hoped – with energy prices, food shortages and Covid-19 cases all surging – there are whispers that those who lent the Tories their votes could well take them back.
If Davison is worried, she didn’t let on. “I’m yet to meet a single person who has told me they voted Tory for the very first time, that they’d always voted Labour, and that they’re never voting Conservative again,” she said. “People felt that they were a little bit voiceless… People had seen their areas in decline, they’d seen under-investment from successive governments, they didn’t feel like their own local representatives were really fighting for them anymore. And I think what they’ve seen in this new intake of Red Wall MPs is that we’re really hungry to get the change that our communities need. I think they can really see that we’re fighting for them.”
How does “fighting” for struggling communities fit with Johnson’s decision to increase National Insurance for all working people by 10 per cent to fund health and social care? Davison suddenly looks serious. “I didn’t vote for it.” She was one of just ten Conservatives who defied the whip, and the only Red Wall MP to do so – something she admitted was “a big decision, especially as a new MP, to decide to vote against your government”.
“I feel like there were other ways that we could have done it without necessarily raising taxes, and particularly raising National Insurance, when we’d made a promise that we wouldn’t.”
Davison isn’t a natural rebel: she tells me she never got a detention at school, and when an email comes in from her whip her first thought is, “Am I in trouble?” So for her to drop the school-prefect act and oppose both the government and her Red Wall colleagues is striking – potentially even naive.
And yet, despite her Pollyanna approach to politics, there are moments when Davison seems to know exactly what she’s doing. Asked about her dream cabinet job, she picks the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“I’m hugely passionate about the digital agenda, and how we need digital opportunities for people and bridging the digital divide. I think the things that bring us the most joy in life are things like music and arts and sport.” She laughed, gesturing around the office – the Marvel figurines, the Taylor Swift posters, the Harry Potter sign reading “Diagon Alley”. “So, if ever there were an opportunity to do that job, I think it would be really incredible, combine a lot of my passions – and be a lot of fun as well.”
It’s the perfect politician’s answer: conveying she’s fun, forward-looking, ambitious – but not so ambitious as to make her a threat. It’s the first time I suspect she might not be entirely sincere.
This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future