July 12, 2005


The new Thatcher?: His impressive performance after last week's terror attacks has strengthened his position as favourite to become the next Tory leader. But who really is David Davis? And why do so many in his party loathe him? Tom Bower on the man traditionalists hope can save the Conservative party from itself. (Tom Bower, July 11, 2005, The Guardian)

Action Man's self-introduction was scripted in Hollywood: "Failure is not an option. We're going to get this guy back." The scene was a Cabinet Office room in Whitehall on Saturday August 26 1995. The intelligence officers, civil servants and military personnel gathered at the meeting of Cobra, the secret committee summoned for major emergencies, were impressed by the junior Foreign Office minister. Few realised that he had hijacked a famous line from Apollo 13, the movie about a stricken spaceship. But over the following hour, the experts confirmed their judgment about that weekend's duty minister, one David Davis.

The 14 men had been summoned following the kidnap of Sergeant Tim Cowley, an assistant to the defence attache at the British embassy in Bogotá. Colombian criminals had seized Cowley, 32, while he was birdwatching in the countryside. A ransom demand was expected, which the British government would reject. Cowley could only hope that a British SAS group would pinpoint his captors' hideout in the Andes and rescue him before he was murdered. "One solid mistake over the following weeks," Davis was told, "will guarantee Cowley's death." But Davis, after a year's training as a Territorial in the SAS and a pre-Westminster career as an industrial troubleshooter, was unusually qualified as a politician to ask the right questions and give cool leadership.

Four months later, in the midst of a gunfight, Cowley was rescued. At a discreet party in the Foreign Office to welcome Cowley back, Davis presented him with a gift wrapped in Christmas paper: a toy Action Man. Participants of the Cobra meetings at that celebration described Davis as an "extremely good manager" and a "hard-working man, able to master a complex brief", whose "relaxed manner could be misinterpreted by some as a lack of sérieux ".

That "misinterpretation" is widely shared among Davis's critics in Westminster, who have accused him of egoism, shallowness and phony bravado. Their hatred is raw, especially since Davis is favourite to become the party's next leader. As the post-election exhaustion among Michael Howard's closest advisers turns to frustration, they have focused their anger on his "idleness" and "disloyalty" during the unsuccessful campaign, painting a picture of an uneducated adventurer, unskilled in spreading emollience and philosophically ignorant.

To their irritation, Davis's statesmanlike performance this week, following the terrorist attacks on London, has only enhanced his claim to lead the party. His quiet, magisterial condemnation of the bombings in the Commons on Thursday overshadowed the home secretary's own performance. That success infuriated those angered by Davis's ambitions.

Davis's detractors are concentrated in two groups. First, there are the older Conservatives, mostly privately educated Eurosceptics and traditionalists who now pose as modernisers. The second group are the so-called "Notting Hill" set: thirtysomething, articulate, intelligent Londoners, they seek to recapture the centre ground dominated by Blairism. Led by George Osborne, Ed Vaisey, Michael Gove and especially David Cameron, they accuse Davis of being a disloyal master plotter. What the detractors might be said to have in common is that many are products of Oxbridge. Sophisticated, wealthy and cliquish, their resistance to Davis could be explained by class: Tory toffs who dislike the working-class product of a single-parent family.

Pertinently, the last outsider resented by traditionalist Tories was Margaret Thatcher.

Of course, none of thios would have been necessary if they'd just kept the original.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 12, 2005 11:29 AM
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