Sunday, July 17, 2005

Mather: "The Remarkable Rise of David Davis"

Graham Mather, President of the European Policy Forum, has just circulated his assessment of the leadership race to EPF subscribers. Mather of course has had a long and distinguished career, and is a seasoned and influential observer of Conservative leadership contests. His views are worth listening to. So hoping he doesn't mind, I'm reproducing it in full.

'I was reflecting recently, after attending a number of speeches and meetings concerning the Conservative leadership, on the remarkable nature of the rise of David Davis, something which press commentators seem not yet to have fully picked up.

Several weeks ago David Davis’s position did not seem at all secure. Certainly he was in the lead amongst the contenders but it seemed perfectly possible that, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind would mount a significant challenge. Other contenders including Liam Fox were also likely to rally some support. And there were expectations that David Cameron would have sufficient votes to “stop Davis”, with the weighty figure of Ken Clarke lurking in the background ready to enter the race at a late stage.

At the moment this all looks very different. As one member of the Shadow Cabinet put it to me, many of the candidates are “virtual candidates” with no declared supporters. Alan Duncan and Theresa May seem to fall into this bracket. It looks as though many of these second level contenders will not in fact put their names forward in a vote for fear of gaining a miserably low level of votes.

When David Cameron made his major speech to date, to Policy Exchange, it seemed to give him a powerful advantage. The speech was emphatic that Conservatives should not oppose for the sake of opposition and should look at Labour ideas, including road pricing, on their merits. He won plaudits for his line that “we do think there is such a thing as society, we just don’t think it is the same thing as the state” and that “Conservatives believe profoundly that there is a ‘we‘ in politics as well as a ‘me’”. The Cameron picture, of aspiration and compassion in equal measure, and his threefold test for policy ideas - is it true to our fundamental beliefs and principles?; is it in the long term interests of the country?; and will it work? - all seemed to make sense.

A sensitive approach to quality of life issues, with time becoming the enemy of family life in modern society and a focus on rigour in exam standards also seemed to suggest that there was a good policy mix in the Cameron package. Oliver Letwin’s coming out in favour of David Cameron also carried some weight.

Yet more recently the Cameron initiative seems to have faded and the Davis thrust to have advanced. At the Centre for Policy Studies it was remarkable how the Davis approach, based on traditional conservative values applied in a dynamic way to the problems of modern society, captured this largely Thatcherite audience.

This approach, drawing on Damian Green’s idea of market techniques applied in a one nation approach to social problems, thereby legitimising vouchers for the centre left of the party, also seems to be being taken up by David Davis. The fact that Damian Green and Ian Taylor from the Ken Clarke wing of the party are firm Davis supporters is proving influential and at a recent gathering of The Parliamentary Mainstream Davis scored a tour de force with a masterly presentation covering both his anti terror Home Office responsibilities and broader policy issues.

The approach was that too many voters don’t care about us because they think we don’t care about them. Davis’s approach, he said, would be to help the victims of state failure. It seems that the Davis approach will draw from European examples of public services which work far better than the ‘monopoly stupidities’ of the British state sector. The Davis approach will focus on things which are both ‘good for me’ as well as ‘good for my neighbour’ and reach out to the constituency which seeks to base its political approach on the ‘decent thing to do’, rather along US Republican approaches.

The Davis approach is firmly supply side, looking at the beneficial effects, including for public spending, of low tax rates. It is a decentralising agenda with a focus on local government performance, which some see as critical to the re-election of a national Conservative government.

It is, however, not just the ideas which seem to appeal but the way in which David Davis has conducted himself over the last months, hitting precisely the right note on every occasion - in the House, to the Thatcherites, to the pro-Europeans and displaying a surefootedness which has not really characterised Michael Howard’s leadership.

David Davis will be tested further as the government attempts to secure consensus around a toughening of anti terror legislation and in particular on the way in which evidence against suspected terrorists will be presented in court. But the signs are that he is well on top of this subject.

There are many bridges to cross before the end of the lengthy leadership process, not least find an agreement on the final shape of this process itself, where there is to be a vote in the 1922 Committee next week. But at the moment the impression is that Davis is pulling ahead of the race.'
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