Davis Debacle: Tory leader manqué self-destructs

The shock resignation of the former shadow home secretary stunned Westminster. Jane Merrick reports on the damage done to his party and his own ambitions

As Westminster was struggling to comprehend the shock resignation of David Davis, one of David Cameron's closest allies summed up the thoughts of the Conservative leader. "Political parties are, in a way, like orchestras," Michael Gove told the Question Time audience last Thursday evening. "And one of the things about David Davis is that he is a talented soloist."

The praise could not have been fainter. But besides making clear that Mr Davis is no longer welcome in the Cameron camp, it also helped to explain one of the most extraordinary and bizarre moves by a senior politician in living memory.

Mr Cameron has refused publicly to condemn the move, but in private there is fury that Mr Davis has done the political equivalent of crashing through the brass section and trying to knock the conductor off his podium. In one "moment of madness" which has horrified and upset his closest friends, Mr Davis has extinguished his own future as the first Tory Home Secretary in 13 years, destabilised the Conservative leader and given Gordon Brown breathing space after months of unfavourable headlines.

He will formally resign as a MP for Haltemprice and Howden this week, and fight a by-election on 10 July. Labour is highly unlikely to field a candidate, leaving the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Miss Great Britain Party as his opponents. There was confusion last night over Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun, who claimed on Friday he had the support of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Wade, the current editor, to run as The Sun candidate in favour of 42 days. A senior source at The Sun said Mr MacKenzie's sudden intervention in the race had been a "cock-up" and that it was only mentioned on Thursday night, by Murdoch at a party, as a "funny idea". "The thing is, he [MacKenzie] took it seriously."

As an Independent on Sunday's poll reveals today, Mr Davis's announcement at 1pm on Thursday outside St Stephen's entrance to the Commons that he was resigning to fight the "strangulation of freedoms" triggered a seven-point collapse in Tory support.

Even if it is a short-term reverse for Mr Cameron, it suggests that the Conservatives' double-figure lead over Labour is more fragile than the more enthusiastic aides around the leadership would like to think. It could indicate a change in luck for Mr Cameron, but there were signs last night that it may not lead to a serious collapse of unity.

But it also exposes differences between MPs on the libertarian wing of the Tory party, who, like Mr Davis, are against ID cards, 42-day detention and DNA databases, and the high Tory, socially conservative wing who want to be tough on terror.

Mr Gove is among the members of the shadow Cabinet who urged Mr Cameron to back down on opposition to 42 days because it would send the message that the Tories are soft on terrorism.

Yet Mr Davis's closest allies in Westminster are unlikely to follow the MP in breaking away from the Tory leader. Derek Conway, for a long time Mr Davis's outrider, is no longer a Tory MP after the row over his family expenses. Andrew Mitchell, shadow Secretary of State for International Development and one of Mr Davis's closest political friends, was not consulted in advance of his decision.

A friend of Mr Mitchell said the MP was "horrified to hear what David was planning" and sought to dissuade him.

"While Andrew greatly respects David's buccaneering spirit and understands his deep feelings about ancient British liberties, he very much doubted that this was the way to advance the cause," the friend said.

An aide to the Tory leader compared the situation to two other difficult periods – last year's party conference, when he rescued his leadership with a well-received no-notes speech in the face of a possible snap election, and his visit to Rwanda last July, when he was caught in a "perfect storm" of the grammar schools row, floods in his constituency and a double-figure deficit in the polls.

The aide said: "We knew this was going to be uncomfortable. But this is about how you deal with things. When you're in a difficult situation it is your response to it that is as crucial as the event itself. We will get over this."

Officially, the party insists that there is "no rift" between Mr Davis and Mr Cameron, old rivals from the 2005 leadership contest. But friends claimed that Mr Davis feared being cut out of the tight circle around the Tory leader, which includes George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. In December 2005, he was rewarded with his old job, and the promise of being Home Secretary in a Tory government, in exchange for an understanding that he would not cause trouble for Mr Cameron.

Yet as the Tory leader's power has grown after riding out last year's problems and a steady climb in the polls, the support of Mr Davis no longer carries the weight it once did. "David and George don't need him any more. We are doing well enough in the polls and he is not needed for party unity because we have that unity," a Cameron ally said.

A friend of Mr Davis said: "It was unlikely that Cameron would have pushed him, but a July reshuffle could be on the cards and that would have added to his worries that he could be sacked."

Mark Oaten, the former Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, has offered to help Mr Davis in his by-election campaign. The Lib Dem MP said: "David loves excitement and he gets restless. I think he wanted to spice up his life a bit."

The left-wing Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews will also campaign on Mr Davis's behalf. He said: "I am saddened that my own party has declined to be part of this contest."

On Tuesday, the ex-Territorial SAS soldier was in the glamorous company of the actress Honor Blackman, designer Vivienne Westwood and Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. As Liberty released balloons to highlight its opposition to 42-day detention, Mr Davis "looked like he'd finally found people he was comfortable with and who wanted to listen to him", according to a witness.

About an hour before the 42 day vote at 6pm, Mr Davis joked that far from there being a handful of MPs he had fought to win over, it was "more like 100".

Mr Davis had the idea last weekend, but the victory by the Government by a majority of just nine – thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party – caused anger on the Tory benches, and Mr Davis "went for it".

Less than half an hour later he was presenting a stunned Mr Cameron in the gloomy Shadow Cabinet room with a "fait accompli". The pair spent less than 10 minutes together before the Tory leader acted swiftly in replacing Mr Davis with Dominic Grieve as shadow Home Secretary.

Mr Cameron made clear that Mr Davis would effectively be on his own, having to hire his own people and pay for his own campaign. It is believed Mr Davis had already secured the agreement of Mr Clegg that the Liberal Democrats – the only real threat to his 5,000 majority – would not field a candidate.

A spokesman for Mr Davis insisted yesterday that despite the "mixed reactions" in the Westminster village and the opinion polls in favour of 42 days, there had been thousands of emails in support of his stand. He had also received thousands of pounds in funding, in small cheques, for his campaign. His supporters now believe that, despite the initial bafflement, he will eventually emerge as a populist champion in touch with ordinary people disillusioned with politicians, and playing the tune the public want to hear.

WHAT THEY SAY

'I think everyone recognises that this is a stunt that has become a farce and has revealed the deep divisions of the party'

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister

'I find it difficult to understand the logic of it. He won the argument in the shadow Cabinet and the argument in the Commons and then he calls a by-election'

Lord Tebbit, Friend and Tory grandee

'This is just an arrogant move and, to be honest, it puts him in a bad light. This is a stunt that could backfire on him'

Lesley Darlington, Cake stall owner, Howden

'David loves excitement and he gets restless. I think he wanted to spice up his life a bit'

Mark Oaten, Lib Dem MP

'When David told me of his decision I tried to talk him out of it. It was quite an emotional moment. I know that he cares passionately about these issues'

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty

'I have always regarded Mr Davis as ambitious but principled. On this occasion he has allowed his one character flaw, his ego, to get the better of him'

Michael Brown, Friend and commentator

The opposition:

Kelvin MacKenzie

The 61-year-old former editor of 'The Sun' claimed on Friday he had won the support of the paper's owner and editor, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Wade, at a party the previous evening. Yet after he suggested terrorists should be locked up not for 42 days but 420 days, there were signs that Murdoch has cold feet, and senior 'Sun' sources said last night he "will not be our man".

Miss Great Britain, Gemma Garrett

At 26, she is a veteran of last month's Crewe and Nantwich by-election, where she came last with 113 votes. The Miss Great Britain Party will meet this week to pick a candidate – they have blonde and brunette factions and are fielding one from each for Henley. Ms Garrett stood on a platform of making British politics "sexy, not sleazy", but her opinions on 42 days are not known.

John Smeaton

Labour officials are rumoured to be trying to persuade Smeaton, 32, to fight Mr Davis on an anti-terror ticket. The baggage-handler who grappled with terrorists at Glasgow airport is available for "corporate events and motivational speeches". A Facebook group calling on him to run includes Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson among its members. But friends of Watson say he is not involved in a push for Smeaton to run.

Mad Cow-Girl

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party's Banana Man is busy fighting in Henley, so it is fielding Mad Cow-Girl instead. She won just 149 votes in Sunderland South at the 2005 general election, but apart from MacKenzie she is the only candidate to set out her stall as a defender of tough terrorism laws. She said: "I may be a loony, but I'm not mad enough to want dangerous people walking free in the name of political correctness."

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