Not unprecedented, but pretty damn close


Gordon Brown would have welcomed headlines pointing out that yesterday’s results were a victory for the Labour government. David Cameron would have liked them to emphasise that the vote was won by pressure, promises and concessions on other issues to anyone who wanted them. I don’t think either of them wanted this.

David Davis’s resignation has been greeted, almost universally, by bewilderment. What is he trying to do? Is he trying to sabotage Labour? Or the Conservatives, in a bizarre revenge for his defeat in the leadership contest two years? Is it an elaborate form of political suicide? Or is it really what he claims it is: standing up for his principles?

A childhood spent watching Yes Minister repeats has left me convinced that the word ‘courageous’ is synonymous with ‘bloody foolish’. But perhaps David Cameron did mean to use the word in its dictionary sense to describe Davis. He is, after all, offering to visit Haltemprice and Howden on his behalf, although no campaign funds will be provided from Tory Headquarters. If the relationship between the two Davids is strained, as some commentators are reporting, they are both concealing it well.

One thing can be certain. Civil liberties is an issue that Davis feels very strongly about indeed. In his statement, he mentioned not just the increased pre-charge detention limits but the ID card proposals, DNA databases and CCTV cameras as examples of:

…the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms.

Strong words. But ones that will resonate with everyone who opposed the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

If this is a principled stand, it may be that Davis has done the right thing. The Conservatives were opposed to the Bill (only Ann Widdecombe voted with the government), but they do not want 42 days to define their policies. Resigning in order to campaign on the issues of civil liberties allows him to focus solely on this issue without damaging the Tory agenda too much. When the first furore has died down, they may actually thank him for that.

The Lib Dems have already announced that they will not field a candidate in the by-election, as they agreed with the Tory position on the Bill.

It looks unlikely that Labour will put a candidate up either. They aren’t strong in the area, and the risk of the by-election turning into a rehash of yesterday’s debate which they won by a whisker must surely dissuade them still further.

So far the only other person to express interest in standing is Kelvin Mackenzie, the former editor of the Sun (and, tangentially, the person responsible for this little gem). He says:

I have been associated with The Sun for 30 years. The Sun is very, very hostile to David Davis because of his 28 day stance and The Sun has always been very up for 42 days and perhaps even 420 days.

Wonderful. It looks very likely that Davis will win the by-election. Nick Robinson for the BBC provides a list of potential reasons why this could disadvantage the Tories, though they are mostly of the “worst-case scenario” variety. And Davis could, in fact, end up back as Shadow Home Secretary. Dominic Grieve, who has been appointed Shadow Home Secretary in Davis’s place, agrees with him on many issues, and Davis is a talented politician who may serve the Tories well if allowed back on to the Front Bench.

This does not seem to have been a spur of the moment decision. It appears Davis had discussed what he would do if the Bill passed with the local Tory party in his constituency. Certainly this move has been popular with his constituents, and perhaps the country at large, who are anyway increasingly disillusioned with this government.

The by-election may be a damp squid. Davis may stand unopposed, and be returned to Parliament with no fanfare. But if he manages to follow through, and turn the next month into a serious debate on civil liberties, he may have a significant impact.

And a debate on civil liberties is needed. However much I may disagree with Davis’s social conservatism on issues such as abortion and gay rights, I agree with him on this. At the very least, it may highlight some of the serious issues with the Counter-Terrorism Bill, and swing public support away from it. That might be enough for a defeat in the Lords.

Yes, Davis is rocking the boat, and Conservative leaders may not like the potentially divisive implications of that. But this issue is important, and for someone who has rather a lot to lose to risk his career on it emphasises just how important. It appears he really is making a stand for his principles.

I hate to admit it, but on this issue, I rather admire the Tory.



2 Responses to “Not unprecedented, but pretty damn close”

  1. As do I.

    A rather peculiar sensation, isn’t it? Perhaps as often precedented as a member of the shadow cabinet calling a by-election for his own seat unprompted.

  2. I don’t paricularly like David Davis, I see him as self-serving and quite arrogant. However, anyone that is prepared to stick up for the British public as our civil rights are eroded has my vote. Perhaps one of the parties should include civil rights, or maybe even the proposed Bill of Rights into their manifesto? I would prefer it is not the Labour party, given they have already proven that they are incapable of keeping to their manifesto pledges in respect of the European Constitution.

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