David Davis criticises 'Brokeback' coalition

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David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, has described the partnership between David Cameron and Nick Clegg as the "Brokeback coalition", it was reported last night.

He dismissed Mr Cameron's flagship "big society" policy as "Blairite dressing" and suggested that the Tory leadership was keener to appease the Liberal Democrats than its own party. His private remarks to a group of businessmen highlight the frustration of right-wing Tories about the concessions the Prime Minister is making to Mr Clegg.

Mr Davis, at the time the front-runner, was defeated by Mr Cameron in a Tory leadership election in 2005. According to the Financial Times, his comments were made to former colleagues from Tate & Lyle – of which Mr Davis was a director in the late 1980s – during a lunch at the Boot and Flogger wine bar in Southwark, London, on Thursday. He was overheard by other customers, including three Financial Times journalists.

He attributed to Lord Ashcroft, the deputy Tory chairman, the "Brokeback coalition" jibe – a reference to the Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain about a gay relationship between two cowboys. Mr Cameron has jokingly described Mr Clegg as his "civil partner". Later Mr Davis denied the newspaper's claims, insisting that he had been misheard. Mr Davis and Lord Ashcroft were not available for comment last night.

Mr Davis reportedly said: "The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you're Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you're Mother Teresa."

Mr Davis, who resigned from the Tory front bench in opposition to campaign against Labour's civil liberties policies, said he was enjoying the freedom of the backbenches. But he went on to note that there were not many jobs "unless you're female". This was, he said, because the Liberal Democrats had brought few women into office.

The former minister claimed the Government "has a mechanism for dealing with the Liberal party, most of whom are inside the coalition. It does not have a mechanism for dealing with the Conservative Party, most of whom are outside the coalition."

Mr Davis said it "would not hurt" the Tories if the Liberal Democrats split. Most of the liberal right of the party held "seats that should be Tory". He suggested that the Tories could agree not to run against "20 or 25" such Liberal Democrats as part of an electoral pact. Given the weakness of Mr Clegg's party, this would be "an offer you can't refuse" for a "guaranteed seat for life".

Dwelling on the Liberal Democrats' lack of ethnic minority MPs, he joked that David Laws, the gay former chief treasury secretary who resigned in May over his expenses claims, was "one sort of minority" brought into the team, but he had left government "within a few weeks". Criticism of the coalition is not confined to the Tory backbenches. As the Cabinet met yesterday to discuss its political strategy, Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron described the Tories as a "toxic brand, adding: "It is not my job to detoxify it."