There were questions over whether one prominent frontbencher on his team would be prepared to sign up to the policy. "The boy's got balls," laughed Mr Davis. "He passes the testosterone count of the Davis camp."
The banter reinforced the stereotype of Mr Davis, 57, as the hard man, the street fighter who could still rough up his Old Etonian rival David Cameron, 39, with a knee to the public school groin on policy.
However, the stiff upper lip approach which was instilled into him by his mother and his step-father, as he was brought up on a rough London council estate, could do him harm if the Tory party prefers the softer appeal of Mr Cameron.
On a train from Euston to Coventry, a Labour MP and a minister joked with him about his chances. "We're rooting for you to win, David," they said. "It will be the best result for us."
That produced the wrinkled Davis smile, and then he went to sit at the other end of the carriage. Mr Davis knows that, thanks to the press he received for his lacklustre conference speech, he is the underdog against his more urbane younger rival.
What he lacks in style, Mr Davis is prepared to make up for in policy proposals, which are emerging as the Achilles heel of the Cameron campaign. But he has to exorcise that uninspiring performance at Blackpool first.
Speaking frankly about his performance that day, he said he had nobody to blame but himself.
"Self pity is a thing I don't approve of," he said.
I wondered whether he accepted the verdict of the media.
"Clearly I could have picked better headlines. That is my responsibility."
How did he assess that speech? "I haven't had a chance to look at the video."
Surely he was not going to watch it? "Yes," he said. He will watch it before the six-week leadership campaign is over, to see if there are things he can learn.
"I think the truth of the matter is, as (Enoch) Powell said, a politician complaining about the press is like a sailor complaining about the weather. You have to live with the vicissitudes. Clearly there was a mood to pull down the front-runner. That reinforced some views. But that comes with the territory. If you want to play in a game where all the rules are fair, politics is not it."
Was the media out to get you? I asked. "No they have agendas. I don't do paranoia."
I asked whether the hard-man image made it difficult for him to show emotion.
He recalled his widely-praised conference speech 12 months before that included a video of the husband of Marion Bates, the jeweller who was shot dead in her shop in Nottingham in 2003, describing her murder. Mr Davis said: "I couldn't speak for five or 10 seconds after that and people could tell. I was quite emotional, and the way you communicate these things is not always the catch in the voice, the Blairite syndrome. I have to say I think if that sort of thing is artificial the public understand. Blair's response to Princess Diana's death was widely praised but Blair's response to some more recent events where he has been emotional, I have found half the people praise it and half the people think it's over the top. I think there is a growing appetite for more straightforwardness and more honesty in politics and that includes honesty of presentation. I think that's very important. The truth of the matter is, it's the only way I can do it."
Some students said they were impressed with Mr Davis for his lack of spin. One said: "He was straight with us - he didn't dodge the questions, he answered them."
Do you find it difficult to show emotion? I asked.
"To be publicly emotional? Unless its appropriate I largely choose not to," he said. "There are times when it is appropriate. When I was public service minister, I used to talk to nurses and policemen about their jobs. That was quite emotional. Even today I could give you the name of an ex-civil servant who would tell you I characterised why it was important what they did. That was not sentimental but it picked up the emotional importance of what they were doing."
But would he change his style if the public wrongly thought he was not an emotional person? "I take the view you don't agonise over things in public. It is the way I have been brought up, and I don't talk about the inwardnesses of what I am going to do."
So he was stuck with the old-fashioned stiff upper lip?
"Yes, it's very old fashioned," he conceded. "But there were times when he did show his emotion - including anger, including his sacking as Tory chairman by Iain Duncan Smith when he was in Florida on holiday."
He was emotional, he said, about the first time he rebelled against the Thatcher government over the removal of free eye tests for glaucoma, and won. "People knew I was not going to sit back while 2,000 people a year lost their eyesight, and we won.
"It was a very emotional issue for me. We got a change in the Bill which led to people with glaucoma in the family being given a free eyesight test."
He added: "Similarly, when I came back from Florida and had that episode and you saw the television performance on the steps of my house - that had some impact shall we say. Similarly, when I responded to the 7 July terrorism, people didn't say that was flat or unemotional. When I allow that to come through people know for sure I mean it. They know for sure it is not something just being put on and it has that much more value as a result.'
His criticism of Tony Blair's show of emotion may be seen as a sideswipe at Mr Cameron but if he loses, he has left enough room to be in the Cameron team. "I don't have a poor view of David Cameron. I worked with him. We had these 7am meetings preparing questions for John Major's PMQs. All I can remember was the laughter. We used to take the mickey out of each other."
He intends to use the contrast in their styles to his own advantage, and the Davis team have discussed plans for "novelty" in their policy proposals each week. Mr Davis is building his campaign around public service reform but he is targeting change to benefit the poor, particularly those in the inner cities where the Tories are as rare as orchids.
"There is a huge political niche market for us here. This struck me in the Brent East by-election. I remember walking around and thinking we were being massacred here and I thought we shouldn't be because we have a massive urban recovery agenda - more police, more choice in schools, and health," he said.
Mr Davis will propose expanding the best schools - possibly with brick prefab units - to take children from poorer backgrounds. "I have been thinking how we sequence it. My view is you focus it on kids who are on free school meals. If you qualify for free school meals, you should qualify for freedom of the voucher," he said.
Although Mr Davis was seen as the right-wing candidate, he had a private row with the Cornerstone group around Mr Duncan Smith who wanted him to commit the Tory party to pull out of the European People's Party in the European Parliament. He refused to do so. "I have had some rumbustious meetings with some on the right, and I told them I was not going to be a captive. And when I said that, I knew I was throwing away some votes. I said I am a Eurosceptic but I will do it my way, whether it is dealing with EPP, or renegotiating the return of some of Britain's powers. I am not going to make promises to people that I will do it exactly as they laid out."
He revealed that last week a member of his team suggested he pull out of the race, if he came a poor second. Mr Davis said he had a "moral responsibility" to run to give the 300,000 party members a choice. Another supporter, on hearing he might pull out, wanted a letter committing Mr Davis to stand before he cast his vote.
"I said I will run. You don't need a letter from me. I don't believe in the purity test of politics. If people don't believe you they shouldn't vote for you. That brings me back to Thatcher ..."
But what if he pulls it off against the bookies' odds? His wife, Doreen, is notoriously shy of the political spotlight. Are his wife and three adult children prepared for the media exposure?
''People thought I was very relaxed about all the delays in the leadership until after September. My youngest child, my son, went off to university in September so any effect on them will be peripheral," he said.
"My wife is mildly apprehensive, as is natural," he added. "She is a very normal person. She is anything but ordinary, but she is normal. She has strong political views in her own right. Someone described her as more like Norma Major than Cherie Blair. She is very sensible. She has raised three children. With me away in Parliament or a high pressure job, she has taken more than a fair share of the pressure."
* BORN: 23 December 1948, York
* EDUCATION: Bec Grammar School, University of Warwick (BSc joint Hons in molecular and computer sciences), London Business School (MSc), Harvard University (AMP)
* FAMILY: Married Doreen Cook on 28 July 1973; one son, two daughters
1987-90: Director, Tate & Lyle, Globe Investment Trust
1987: Elected Conservative MP for Boothferry (1997 Haltemprice and Howden)
1993: Minister of State, Public Service and Science
1994: Minister for Europe, Foreign Office
1997: Chairman, Public Accounts Committee
2001: Chairman, Conservative Party
2002: Shadow Deputy Prime Minister
2003: Shadow Home SecretaryReuse content