When he squeezed out a stillborn speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday, he stayed focused on a slew of topics beloved by the hard right. He damned the tiny minority of immigrants who don't speak English, raved that "we don't have borders" any more, laid into the Human Rights Act, and demanded we "build more jails" despite having the highest prison population in Europe.
He even managed to make a sneering reference to Islington. For all his talk of "modern Conservatism", it was like somebody had tossed the collected works of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard at their most desperate into a blender and smeared the pulp onto an Autocue. And he didn't even do it with charm: his delivery was so wooden, it could have been flat-packed and stored in the basement of Ikea.
The shape of David Davis's politics is only now becoming clear. He has spent most of his time since he became an MP as a whip and then as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - jobs that require you to keep your personal views below the radar. As a result, many people have simply listened to his biog - he was born on a council estate to a single mum - along with the very recent rhetoric about being a moderniser and filled in the blanks. But if you read through his early speeches as a backbencher, if you track his personal votes - in favour of hanging, against gay rights, in defence of hunting - or if you simply listen now he is facing a tough fight, a different Davis emerges.
He proudly declared last week that he would invite Lynton Crosby, the Australian election strategist, back to Britain for the 2009 general election after doing a "great job". This is a man who masterminds anti-immigrant campaigns across the world. Crosby wrote this year's asylum-seekers-cause-MRSA hate campaign for Michael Howard - a strategy so distasteful that even Rupert Murdoch said it was too right-wing and the BNP complained that it was "stealing our ideas". Davis is already promising more of the same, saying the Tories should "stop apologising and get on with it".
If you search for the intellectual vision behind Davis's campaign, you find equally disturbing details. His team has been briefing that their man has an "intellectual guru": the American legal theorist Randy E Barnett. They first met in 1996, and Davis today says Barnett's The Structure of Liberty has shaped his political thought. It's easy to exaggerate the importance of these tossed-out names - remember when we all thought Tony Blair's agenda for government was going to be influenced by Will Hutton? (Oh, such sweet, deluded days...). But it is revealing nonetheless that Davis has chosen a man who is considered, even within the Republican Party, to be on the ring-wing fringe.
Barnett is an ultra-libertarian driven by hostility to any kind of collective state action. Reading his book The Structure of Liberty is a journey into an American conservative tradition quite alien even to the British right.
Barnett attacks the traditional Republican idea that there is a natural political community, and then rips apart the more modern idea that a social contract among individuals produces community. He believes instead in stark individualism, with government's role stripped down to almost nothing except upholding property rights. Barnett's work is often summarised as an attempt to remove the words "We the People" from the US constitution. This is Thatcher's "no such thing as society" times 10.
Yes, Davis does have a good narrative: from south London council estate to Westminster. It would make for a rousing party political broadcast. But in practice, his policies would actually discriminate against the very people he boasts about coming from. He says he is "the last person" to bash single mothers, but what is his proposal for lush tax credits for married couples if not a policy to fiscally punish single mums? And when he talks about "big tax cuts", he knows the slashed spending will not hurt the middle class - the Tories' coveted constituency - but will be felt on the council estates that have been quietly regenerated over the past eight years by redistributive tax credits (dismissed by Davis as "complications"), regeneration grants, and SureStart centres.
And the hypocrisy deepens. Davis brags about moving upwards from one class to another, presenting it as a prime example of Thatcherite social mobility. There's only one problem with this: he's peddling a myth. Davis rose out of the working class long before Thatcherism, in the high-taxing, high-spending culture of the 1960s.
The evidence from studies conducted by the London School of Economics shows that the policies he wants to extend - slashing tax and spending - actually cause social mobility to collapse. By 1997, after 20 years of these policies, Britain had become a country where - with very few exceptions - if you were born rich, you lived and died rich, and if you were born poor, you lived and died poor. A David Davis born after 20 years of Thatcherism would have been far more likely to remain on that estate for the rest of his life.
This is the reality for all low-tax economies. Ironically, the United States is the developed country where you are least likely to achieve the American dream of rising from a log cabin. You are most likely to transcend your birth in high-tax Sweden. It takes large public investment in the poor to achieve social mobility - precisely the policies Davis is mocking Gordon Brown for introducing. So what good is Davis's narrative if it is simply a mockery of the policies he hopes to introduce?
It's tempting, for those of us who will never vote Conservative, to feel a sliver of satisfaction as the Tories prepare to pick another political skinhead destined to lose. But would the coronation of yet another head-banger dragging British politics out to the hard right really be something to applaud? After his dire speech yesterday, I'm hoping the squabbles of the next few weeks - as MPs whittle the list of leadership candidates down to two - are drowned out by the sound of rats fleeing the sinking HMS Davis.Reuse content