Bruce Anderson: Nothing he has ever said, written or done suggests David Davis is up to the job of PM

What did he do in nine months as Tory chairman? He is unknown to senior activists in the country
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The Independent Online

Eight years ago, a man set out on a mission. David Davis decided to become the leader of the Tory Party. Politics is full of ambitious men. Yet it is hard to think of anyone who has pursued power with such relentless single-mindedness. Politics is also full of characters whose ambitions outrun their abilities. Again, it is hard to think of a better example than David Davis.

Eight years ago, a man set out on a mission. David Davis decided to become the leader of the Tory Party. Politics is full of ambitious men. Yet it is hard to think of anyone who has pursued power with such relentless single-mindedness. Politics is also full of characters whose ambitions outrun their abilities. Again, it is hard to think of a better example than David Davis.

Some of those touted as candidates for the Tory leadership are young and untested. George Osborne, David Cameron; both are under 40; and just completing their fourth year as an MP. Yet in their brief innings, they have shown class and style. Their performance at the wicket makes the selectors stroke their chins: "If they're good enough, they must be old enough."

David Davis is old enough: 56 and an MP for 18 years. But in all those 18 years, there has been no indication that he is good enough. He has never said, written or done anything to suggest that he is anywhere near prime-ministerial calibre.

Back in the early 1990s, he was an effective Whip. The experience was not good for his character. The Tory Whips' office has always been run on military lines; the practices of the adjutant's office in the language of the hunting field. Whips can intimidate but whatever they tell new members, they have neither the power of corporal punishment nor instruments of torture.

David Davis liked to give the contrary impression. When he was a Whip, he would strut around talking up his own fearsomeness and implying that he made Torquemada look like Oliver Letwin. Though this grated on some of the party's more thoughtful backbenchers, he did make lifelong friends. The Major government was embattled. The Whips who strove night after night to keep it alive often felt as if they were on bomb-watch during the Blitz, and there was a bonding. Derek Conway and Greg Knight, two colleagues of Mr Davis during those difficult years, are among his closest friends and supporters.

That is a tribute to him, but only a limited one. It would be absurd to confuse the mechanics of whipping in the shell-stricken foxholes of the late Major era with the broad perspectives of successful government.

On promotion from whipping, Mr Davis became a Foreign Office minister. Instantly a problem manifested itself, and an ironic solution was found. The problem was speaking. Mr Davis could not speak. At the Dispatch Box, he sounded like a freshly captured slave who had just been chosen to become a castrato. Help was sought. A bright youngster was called in to teach the floundering minister how to speak English in public. The youngster was David Cameron.

None of these difficulties diminished David Davis's self-esteem. At the FO, his boss was Malcolm Rifkind. Foreign Secretaries often have to travel between many time zones, work hard, and grab sleep when they can. One night, Mr Rifkind got to bed very late, knowing that he would have to rise for duty very early and that it would be many long travailed hours before he was next able to sleep.

He was barely horizontal when the phone rang. It was an apologetic private secretary: "Foreign Secretary, I'm terribly sorry, but Mr Davis insists that he must speak to you." One can imagine the civil servant, doing everything possible to persuade David Davis that there was no need to interrupt Malcolm Rifkind's rest; the matter could surely wait until morning. Mr Davis was obdurate. He is good at that, and ultimately, an official cannot prevent a Minister of State from talking to the Foreign Secretary.

At the very least, Malcolm Rifkind expected to be informed that Ruritania was about to invade Ruthenia. Instead, he was subjected to a rambling tale about a newspaper article which had been critical of David Davis. Was this going to damage his career prospects? Mr Rifkind, who wanted to return to slumber as rapidly as possible, responded with mildness and reassurance.

David Davis, in the grip of self-obsession, pressed on. Could the Foreign Secretary assure him that there would be no damage to his career? Still determined not to break through the surface of consciousness, and thus be unable to return to sleep quickly, Mr Rifkind remained emollient. What he wanted to say was: "I'll tell you what'll damage your career; any more phone calls like this."

After Mr Major's defeat, David Davis refused to be part of William Hague's team. Mr Hague was 13 years his junior. If he succeeded, there would be no prospect of a Davis premiership. If he failed, why should Mr Davis waste time in supporting him?

By 2001, David Davis felt able to run for the Tory leadership. Fewer than 20 Tory MP were impressed by his claims. Thereafter, some of his friends, especially Derek Conway, were determined to destroy Iain Duncan Smith's leadership. They could not forgive IDS for harassing the Tory Whips over Maastricht, and for piquing their machismo in that they were unable to suppress him. But Mr Davis did serve IDS as Chairman of the Tory party. This gave rise to one of the greatest mysteries in modern British politics. What did he do in the nine months or so that he was Party Chairman?

Those in Central Office saw little sign of activity. Tories in the country waited in vain for visits from their Chairman. Over the past few weeks the Davis team has claimed that their man is overwhelmingly popular with Tory agents and chairmen. A more accurate assessment is that he is overwhelmingly unknown to the senior activists in the country. Many of them do not believe that this is to his credit.

Andrew Mackay, a Davis supporter, said recently that David Davis has spent the past eight years brooding and plotting in his dark farmhouse. His friends have certainly spent the past three weeks trying to destroy the last vestiges of Michael Howard's leadership. Derek Conway has suggested that the Davisites have the 30 votes necessary for an immediate leadership challenge. Eric Forth, another inveterate Davisite, has been sitting in the smoking room to greet Tory MPs who have been asked to serve under Michael Howard. "What is your role in the interim administration?" he will inquire. He has taken to referring to the Chief Whip, David Maclean, as the "interim Chief Whip". Other Davis supporters have been alternately bullying and bribing Tory backbenchers. Unless a Davis team found room for six shadow chancellors and six shadow foreign secretaries, the promises made on Mr Davis' behalf could never be kept.

In late 2003, when the rest of the Tory Party was ready to sweep Michael Howard towards a coronation, Eric Forth was still hoping for a leadership election. Another MP asked him who else agreed. "Oh, the passed-over, the pissed-off and the terminally troublesome," replied Mr Forth. It is from that unsatisfactory bunch that David Davis still draws his principal support. Any other Tory tempted to join them should pause for thought.

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