SAS man who climbed the greasy pole – and jumped off

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Indy Politics

Few politicians divide opinion as strongly as David Davis.

Among allies he inspires a loyalty that borders on the fanatical, while his many Tory detractors view him with a mixture of suspicion and hostility.

Although he is undoubtedly one of the Opposition's most effective performers, it was his failure to win more friends among Tories that helped to destroy his ambition of leading the party.

He is a complex man, fond of using military metaphors from his days in the Territorial SAS, unstinting in his assessment of opponents' failings and yet highly sensitive to criticism. Notoriously impatient, he once refused to appear on a television channel for a month after it kept him waiting 20 minutes for an interview.

Raised by a single mother on a south London estate, he carved out a successful business career before switching to Westminster.

Seen as belonging to the soft right of the party, he first made his mark as a pugnacious whip under John Major and rose to become minister for Europe in the last Tory government's dying days. After the party's catastrophic defeat in 1997, he shrewdly decided to become chairman of the Commons public accounts committee.

Mr Davis returned to the frontbench as party chairman under Iain Duncan Smith after his first bid for the leadership flopped. Criticism of his loyalty grew to a crescendo when he took a summer holiday in Florida while the Commons was still sitting. He was still Stateside when he was demoted to a peripheral role shadowing the deputy prime minister's office.

Two years later, when Mr Duncan Smith was ousted, Mr Davis announced he was not standing for the leadership in the interests of party unity. Michael Howard was returned unopposed and rewarded Mr Davis with the post of shadow home secretary.

He blossomed in the role, soon claiming the scalp of the immigration minister Beverley Hughes with leaked documents exposing chaos over the issuing of visas to eastern Europeans. David Blunkett also resigned as home secretary on his watch after the revelation that his office fast-tracked the visa of his lover's nanny.

Mr Davis's big moment should have come during the leadership contest of 2005. He started as the overwhelming favourite until a limp campaign launch and a flat address to the party conference. Undecided MPs moved in their droves to David Cameron and – he was roundly beaten.

Many expected Mr Davis either to be sacked or to sulk in the Shadow Cabinet. Neither happened and he continued to perform with panache as shadow home secretary.

David Davis's key allies

Greg Knight

MP for East Yorkshire, next to Mr Davis's constituency. A former Tory frontbencher, he shares Mr Davis's centre-right outlook and supported his leadership campaigns.

Roger Gale

The long-standing MP for Thanet North was at Mr Davis's side each time he stood for the top job. A supporter of capital punishment, critic of the European Union, and vehement opponent of fox-hunting.

David Wilshire

The MP for Spelthorne,Surrey, is a close friend ofMr Davis. He is Eurosceptic and a critic of the GoodFriday Agreement.

Iain Dale

Blogger who ran a Westminster bookshop and masterminded Mr Davis's leadership bid in 2005. Stood unsuccessfully for Parliament and hopes to be a candidate at the next election.

Nick Wood

A former journalist who was a media adviser to Tory leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith; he still handles press for the latter.