June 16, 2005


The backstreet bruiser hoping to knock sense into the Tories: He lived in a slum, was adopted at 11 and married an invisible wife: David Davis's personal and political journey towards the leadership is chartered by our correspondent (Andrew Pierce, 6/17/05, Times of London))

An illegitimate child, he had been brought up in York in a prefabricated bungalow dominated by the politics of his grandfather, Walter Harrison, a Communist who led the 1936 Jarrow hunger march from York to Aldermaston.

His father had vanished within days of learning that his married mother, Betty Brown, was pregnant. After four years in York, he moved to London when his mother married Ronald Davis, a shop steward at Battersea power station, who adopted him at the age of 11. They lived in a flat in South London which Mr Davis describes as a “slum”. They later moved to a council house in Tooting which the boy thought was luxurious: it had an indoor bathroom and electricity.

At Bec School Mr Davis excelled at science, even managing to set the chemistry lab alight. He passed A levels in physics and chemistry but failed zoology the first time after walking out of the house the night after yet another confrontation with his stepfather. Barry Trowbridge, who used to walk to school with Mr Davis, said: “He was a tough kid who knew how to look after himself. He had a reputation for getting into scraps.” That label has followed him into the Commons where many Tory MPs resent his bombastic style.

Mr Davis, who had a boxer dog named Winston, was a popular figure at school. A scruff, whose tie was always crooked and whose hair looked like it had never seen a comb, he was outspoken in current affairs debates. In a survey of the classmate most likely to be Prime Minister by 25, he was top.

Freddie Hore, 89, who was Mr Davis’s headmaster until the sixth form, said: “The school recruited bright boys from underprivileged backgrounds. David Davis exemplified what we were trying to do. He was conscientious and an admirable scholar.” Mr Hore was a feared disciplinarian. “I had simple rules. If the boys broke them they were caned.” Mr Davis was caned once.

The school, whose old boys include the actor Art Malik and the former England rugby captain Bob Hiller, was amalgamated with a neighbouring comprehensive in 1970. In 1971 it was renamed Ernest Bevin after the socialist Foreign Secretary. Margaret Thatcher, the Education Secretary at the time, has not been forgiven by the Old Boys.

Mr Davis was a prop forward in the school rugby team. He broke his nose three times, the school magazine noting that the “2nd XV have pounded their way to victory, suicidally led by D.M. Davis”. He broke his nose twice more, once in an accident in a swimming pool and again in a fight on Clapham Common.

A further sign of the now carefully cultivated action man image came when he joined the Territorial Army SAS for two years. It was not just about derring-do antics but to finance his education at Warwick University. His parents had refused to help.

While at university between 1968 and 1971, he met Doreen, a fellow molecular science student. They married in July 1973. Their daughter Rebecca came the next year, Sarah in 1977, and son Alexander, who is still at home, in 1987.

Doreen Davis is a rare politician’s wife. She is never seen at Westminster or party conferences; there are few photographs of them together. A request for one was politely declined. Unlike Sandra Howard, there will be no interviews or solo television appearances.

Yet behind the scenes she is a huge influence. Mrs Davis, who gave up her career to look after the children, runs the constituency office in their Yorkshire farmhouse.

In 1971 he went to London Business School and, at a time of radical student activism, became chairman of the deeply unfashionable Conservative Association. At the London School of Economics, a left-wing hotbed, John Blundell, now the head of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the free-market think-tank, was elected to the same Tory post. They have been friends ever since. In 1973 Mr Blundell backed Mr Davis for the chairmanship of the Federation of Conservative Students. He won and his first act was to ally it to Amnesty International, a move he would be unlikely to repeat today.

His unexpected victory underlines the extent of his political journey. Mr Davis, the current standard-bearer of the Thatcherites, was the candidate of the Left against the rightwinger Neil Hamilton.

Mr Blundell said: “Then David was a Heathite managerial Tory but he won the vote of the free-marketeers because, having read Hayek and Friedman, he was open to ideas.”

When a delegation from the federation was booked in to see Mrs Thatcher about student grants, Mr Davis took no chances. Mr Blundell recalled: “We had a 30-minute slot but he made a dozen of us swot all weekend so we were fully briefed.” Another friend was Michael, now Lord, Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary. Mr Blundell said: “We joked that I would become director-general of the IEA, Michael would be Scottish Secretary and David would be leader of the Conservative Party. So far it’s two out of three.”

How can he possibly get support from the wets?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2005 11:10 PM

He can do an end-run around the Wets and appeal to those upwardly mobile voters who support Blair now, but who supported Thatcher in the 80s and early 90s. The Labourites can do their part by pushing Gordon Brown left.

A strong stance against crime and illegal immigration couldn't hurt either.

Posted by: bart at June 17, 2005 5:28 AM

There's no doubt he's a very capable guy but he does seem somewhat lacking in plain electoral appeal.

Still when Blair goes, he'd have a good as chance as any at being PM.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 17, 2005 7:31 AM


how does that get him leadership of the party?

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2005 8:00 AM

The Tory rank-and-file is far more conservative that the Parliamentary party. He can run as the standard bearer of the Thatcherites against the upper-class twits like Clarke and Hogg. Let the toffs move to the LibDems where they'll be happier.

Posted by: bart at June 18, 2005 11:38 AM