The overwhelming reaction to David Davis’ resignation yesterday was bewilderment. People couldn’t understand why someone who said he had no dispute with his party’s policy, no argument with his leader, and a shadow cabinet platform from which to articulate his case would feel the need to force a by-election. By promoting Dominic Grieve, Cameron has ensured Davis won’t be coming back. By forcing a by-election in his own Tory seat, he is not making a protest against the Labour Government. Labour comes third in this rural part of Yorkshire. So who exactly is he fighting against? He is like a man in the street shouting at strangers, with passers-by crossing over the road to avoid him.
So what is really going on? It is clear that there is tension between Davis and the man that beat him to the leadership. Behind the smiles, the two men are bitter rivals. Consider the manner of the resignation: Davis had consulted the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and his own constituency party chairman, before telling his own party leader. Cameron tried to dissuade him. But Davis went and did it anyway. That displays a pure contempt for Cameron, both his political judgement and his leadership. It is a titanic breakdown in party discipline. The Tories have reverted to the kind of shenanigans we used to see over Maastricht, just at the point when Cameron must have hoped those days were behind them. Small wonder that Cameron called the decision ‘brave’ then ran a hundred miles to distance himself; and that the Tory briefing machine has been whispering about the state of Davis’ mental health.
We can speculate about Davis’ motives. His allies (mostly those who supported him, not Cameron, for the leadership) claim it is an act of heroic principle. Others see it as a slow-burning leadership bid: where better to criticise Cameron than from the Tory backbenches? Other are swift to point out the colossal ego of the man, and suggest that this might be more about David Davis’ love of the limelight than his deep concern for the Magna Carta.
For my money, it is a sign of something more deep-seated. When confronted with a major policy issue such as the proper response to international terrorism, and the balance between protecting the public at large and the rights of the citizen, the Tories have wilted under the pressure. They can’t hold it together under scrutiny. Their internal divisions become exposed. Cameron will become a victim of his own success: as his opinion poll leads suggest he is on the way to Downing Street, then the heightened scrutiny he comes under will reveal his party is not a serious government-in-waiting. That’s what has just happened over national security. The man Cameron would have made Home Secretary has just declared he would rather fight for votes with the Monster Raving Loonies and Miss Whiplash. That not only shows Cameron’s suspect judgement, it also proves that the Tories are unfit for office.
Hazel Blears is MP for Salford and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government