Interview: David Davis

The polls are opening for David Davis’ unique single issue by-election on civil liberties. But the man himself seems relaxed, confident – even happy. And then he says something unexpected.

“Today has become irrelevant, really.” What? Mr Davis just gave up his career as shadow home secretary, one of the most important positions in British public life, for this. He just put Britain’s small but committed army of people fighting for the country’s liberties in the full glare of the media spotlight. And now it’s irrelevant?

“Well, when the other guy doesn’t step in the ring he gives away the victory,” he says. “If Gordon Brown had fought, the poll would have been more clear-cut in its meaning.”

It’s the first time Mr Davis has admitted how far Labour’s refusal to field a candidate blew the lid off his plans.

Not that it did them much good in the public opinion stakes, though. Yesterday’s politics.co.ukpoll found 71 per cent of respondents believed they were wrong to back away from the fight.

“I thought there was about a 50-50 chance they’d run,” he admits. “Well, if anything, I thought it was more likely they would run than they wouldn’t. I thought Gordon Brown wouldn’t want another accusation of cowardice.”

It’s a fairly crude and underhand way to neutralise what could easily have become a cogent political threat. But it was also very successful. With a Labour man standing against him, Mr Davis’ by-election would have become the centre-stage of British politics, the scene of a dramatic and unprecedented debate on the kind of country people want to live in. Without a proper opposition, it has become something of a media sideshow. Still covered, of course, but more as a curiosity than the focus of national debate.

“It’s sad Labour hasn’t run. They might even have beaten me. No, the opponent I have here is people saying: ‘You’re going to win anyway.’

“So it won’t be indicative of much tomorrow. But it will be indicative of something.”

How so, exactly?

“When Labour refused, the focus shifted countrywide,” he replies, citing recent polls showing public opinion turning on civil liberties issues.

There’s probably some truth in that, although it’s hard to tell. After all, people don’t vote on civil liberties. They vote on the economy and, probably, competence. But when Mr Davis resigned politics.co.uk received a torrent of email expounding support for him. His office got the same reaction. But as a political journalist you learn to be slightly wary of emails. They don’t always mean many people care. Sometimes they just mean a few people care a lot.

Mr Davis is more confident of himself than that. “Most people would not predict we could have got those numbers at the beginning of this thing,” he explains. “People say knife crime is more important. They say the NHS is more important. Of course they’re important but the right to debate them, to discuss them, is based on the fundamentals of civil liberties.

“Most people worry about their house, how it looks and all that, but they don’t worry about their foundations. If you take those away the house falls down. And when people start thinking about them, they do realise their importance.”

But there are some people challenging how committed Mr Davis really is to those principles of his. Not just the journalists who viewed the entire project as a cynical publicity exercise to cement a future leadership bid, but those who took a long hard look at Mr Davis’ voting record and didn’t like what they found.

Without an opponent on the authoritarian wing to challenge him, Mr Davis faced a different kind of fight altogether. The Green party put forward Shan Oakes for the seat, to fight on a ‘true’ civil liberties platform.

Writing for politics.co.uk, Peter Tatchell, veteran gay and human rights activist, said the people of Haltemprice and Howden deserved a more consistent defender of freedom than the one they were given.

“Throughout the worst of Labour’s authoritarianism,” Mr Tatchell wrote, “they could count on Davis’ support.”

Well, let’s address those objections one by one.

Number one: David Davis voted for ID cards.

“Yeah, that’s true,” he says flatly. “Whilst shadow home secretary, I was the only person in the shadow cabinet – bar one – who opposed them. My choice was go with the party line or resign. I thought about resigning but I decided to move around the issue within the party.

“By the third reading I had pretty much changed the party around. Actually, everyone in the House of Commons knew that.”

Number two: David Davis voted for the ban on protests in parliament, probably one of the most despised and visible (or rather, not visible) attacks on Britain’s civil liberties.

Here, Mr Davis is slightly less convincing. “I have to tell you, since I’m in confessional mode here, I have voted for lots of counter-terrorism legislation that after the event has been used for things we never expected. Parliament has been led to vote for things which later turn out to be problematic.”

And this is one example, presumably?

“We thought it was about bringing noise under control. What we didn’t realise was that they’d use it to ban protests. It’s not the only time parliament’s been conned.”

That’s all very well, but I do seem to remember David Blunkett, then home secretary, saying the law was “a hammer to crack a nut”, referring to parliament’s highly dedicated go-it-alone protestor Brian Haw. The quote seems to make it very obvious what the government was doing, doesn’t it?

“We took the nut joke as just that – a joke. It does rather make the point I suppose,” Mr Davis replies.

Number three: David Davis voted against civil rights for gay people.

This is probably the most widespread and damaging allegation made against him, and to some extent it has stuck, partly a result of people abiding suspicion of the Tories when it comes to gay rights issues.

Mr Davis rejects it outright.

“The first thing to say is I didn’t vote on civil partnership because I was out of the House. It was carried through by Alan Duncan for the Conservatives. He was in my department and everything he did was with my explicit authorisation.

“When these attacks started – it was Ben Bradshaw [Labour health minister] who said something – I was at Iain Dale’s civil union. I mean, that’s just silly.”

There’s a fourth objection to put to David Davis. It’s not one the Greens have focused on, but it has been brought up a lot over the last few weeks. When politics.co.uk asked its users about it, they came down equally on both sides of the argument – to the man.

Number four: David Davis wasted taxpayers’ money calling an unnecessary by-election.

“After you’ve netted the likely lost deposit and my lost salary, it’s going to cost 16p per constituent,” he replies.

Lost deposit? He really isn’t thinking tonight’s going to go well.

“You could win this election and still lose your deposit,” he says. Not a good sign, but also indicative of Labour’s refusal to stand.

“The simple truth is that the cost of the things we’re talking about is massive. Big brother has expensive tastes. It costs millions to keep innocents on the DNA database. ID cards will cost £6 billion if you believe the government or £19 billion if you believe the London School of Economics. The numbers are massively disproportionate.

“The idea democracy is too expensive to have is, in my view, not a runner.”

That much is clear. It’s been a strange, strange little adventure Mr Davis has set up here in Yorkshire. He has lost a lot – a future on the government front bench for a start – and he has gained, if not support, then respect, from a significant swathe of the British public.

It’s natural to play down expectations ahead of a by-election result. Political parties do it all the time. But it sounds like Mr Davis actually expects a fairly low turnout tonight. Without an ideological opponent to run against, you can’t really blame people for not seeing the point. But that also means we can’t really evaluate tonight’s vote in any meaningful way as a referendum on civil liberties. And that’s the real shame of today’s unique by-election.

Ian Dunt