Leading Article: Laudable principle, reckless egotism

The liberal principles articulated by David Davis in his resignation speech outside the House of Commons yesterday might have been extracted from an editorial in this very newspaper. So it will come as no surprise to readers that we agree wholeheartedly with the trenchant opposition of the MP for Haltemprice and Howden to "the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms" that has taken place in recent years.

Mr Davis's criticisms of the growth of CCTV surveillance, the DNA database and the Government's plans to set up a national ID card scheme are all absolutely justified. So is his disgust at the Government's extension of the permitted period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects, which was whipped through the Commons this week. The latest Criminal Justice Bill is indeed a "monstrosity", as Mr Davis put it.

It ought to be a source of embarrassment for ministers that a Conservative shadow Home Secretary was able to produce such a withering critique of the contemptuous disregard for civil liberties that has been exhibited by this government. But while we agree entirely with his analysis of the Government's sorry record, and hugely admire his heroic, if rather Quixotic, stand in defence of traditional British liberties, Mr Davis's decision to resign from the Commons to fight a by-election cannot be interpreted as anything other than an act of reckless egotism.

Some context is important. It is no secret in Westminster that both the Labour and Conservative front benches were divided in private about the merits of 42-days detention for terror suspects. The difference is that Mr Davis's resignation has now exposed the Conservative divisions to the public gaze. This would perhaps be justifiable if those differences of opinion were threatening to spill out anyway. But the fact is that they were well contained before yesterday. David Cameron had succeeded in positioning his party firmly in the civil liberties camp. Indeed, he had done a fine exposure of Gordon Brown's support for 42 days as shabby political positioning just the previous day. So it seems ungrateful, to say the least, for Mr Davis to repay his leader's support on this issue by resigning.

It is said that Mr Davis was frustrated by Mr Cameron's unwillingness to commit the Tories unequivocally to repealing the 42-days legislation if they come to power at the next general election. But it is hardly uncommon for shadow administrations to be cautious about making firm commitments. And, as Mr Davis himself admitted, there is a high likelihood that the House of Lords will strike out 42 days in any case. Mr Davis's mini-referendum on the issue might well prove redundant.

So did Mr Davis allow a lingering sense of hostility towards the politician who defeated him in the 2005 Conservative leadership election to triumph over his calmer instincts? At the very least, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he has allowed his own pride to get in the way of his party's best interests. The upshot is that this resignation is the first bit of luck Mr Brown has had in many months. It removes the spotlight from the Government's woes just as Mr Brown's premiership seemed on the verge of meltdown. As the spotlight swings on to Mr Cameron, it becomes the most substantial test of his authority within his party, threatening to expose the cracks that he has papered over.

Mr Davis's excoriation of the Government's record on civil liberties yesterday was laudable. And he should be praised by all who support democracy for his show of conviction, a commodity in too short a supply in Westminster. But it was unquestionably his own party that felt the sting of this resignation most keenly. And we fear that, ultimately, the biggest loser will be Mr Davis himself.