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.”