This is an extract from the book PRIME MINISTER BORIS AND OTHER THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED, edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale, published by Biteback a fortnight ago. It is a collection of 23 counterfactual essays. To buy the book, click HERE.
‘I wish I’d known he could do that before’, whispered one aide to another. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if he could do it for his conference speech?’1
They were listening to Conservative leadership contender David Davis MP make a speech to 250 Scottish Conservatives in Edinburgh in early September 2005. The day hadn’t got off to a good start, with Davis junking the text prepared by his speechwriting team. ‘Guess I’ll have to fly solo’, he complained. The two aides shuddered, having the previous day experienced a different sort of ‘flying solo’ when, following a visit to the Wirrall, the three of them had taken a helicopter ride back to London. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before ‘action man’ Davis was flying the damn thing. ‘I’m sure there must be a law against this’, pleaded one of the aides, but in vain.
Back to Edinburgh. The two aides looked on in wonderment as Davis wowed his audience, delivering a polished, passionate, insightful and inspirational speech – and all without notes.
The second aide responded: ‘Do you think he could still do it? Isn’t it a bit late? Is there time enough to plan it properly?’ A few of the elderly ladies looked round and tutted disapprovingly. The two aides moved out of the room and started an animated discussion. Would Davis go for it? He loves a bit of a risk, doesn’t he? But he’s never been confident about his speaking. He surely wouldn’t risk his whole leadership campaign on that one speech, would he? Maybe not, but the others may do – Cameron, for example, what’s he got to lose? He’s got to plan something dramatic at the conference. And Fox. It would be typical of him to upstage everyone, wouldn’t it?
The two nodded knowingly, plans already hatching in their minds.
And so it came to pass. All five leadership contenders set out their wares at the party conference. But by the end of the week there was only one speech the conference representatives were talking about – and that was Davis’s. How had he pulled it off, was the most common reaction? Where on earth had it come from?
In truth, it had all been very simple. Davis had studied the video of Ann Widdecombe’s 1998 conference speech, when she had been the first to break the tradition of speaking from an autocue or from a typescript; it had been an almost evangelical performance. He had also studied Bill Clinton’s lectern-less speeches.
Having initially dismissed the idea of delivering such a speech as ‘barking mad’, he increasingly warmed to it – and, to cut a long story short, pulled it off. In spades. ‘The most memorable conference speech from a Tory since the Lady wasn’t for turning’, said ITN’s Tom Bradby on the lunchtime news. It was a remark which provoked the Cameron team’s Greg Barker to launch a bitter tirade at Bradby outside his Imperial Hotel bedroom door several hours later.2 The BBC’s Nick Robinson was equally effusive: ‘It was the speech which secured Davis not only the leadership, but the affection of his party.’ Leading Tory policy wonk Nick Boles, someone everyone had assumed would support Cameron, told Sky News: ‘That was what I had been waiting for. It was the speech of a party leader on his way to Number Ten. Davis knows what modernising entails and he’s got my full support.’3
The next day, with only a handful of MPs publicly backing him, David Cameron withdrew from the campaign, having delivered a lacklustre conference performance. ‘We got it so wrong’, said Cameron’s emotional campaign manager, George Osborne, but the writing had been on the wall for some time. A week before the conference, Cameron supporter Ed Vaizey had signalled in an unguarded aside to one of the Davis campaign team that the end was nigh, and that he would soon be transferring his allegiances. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
‘Ah, the boy Vaizey’, sniggered Derek Conway, ‘he can see which way the wind is blowing’. Conway was the Davis campaign’s numbers man – the keeper of the records. ‘If he comes over, he’ll bring a few with him.’
Much to the campaign’s surprise, when Cameron pulled out, it was without signalling anything formal to Davis himself, and he made no demands before publicly declaring his support for Davis. ‘What on earth is he playing at?’ mused Davis’s campaign manager, Andrew Mitchell. ‘He could have at least asked for Shadow Home Sec.’
A week later MPs trooped down the Committee Room corridor to vote. With Cameron and Rifkind gone, only Fox and Ken Clarke remained on the ballot paper to challenge Davis. At 6.30pm that night MPs crammed into Committee Room 14 to hear the chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Michael Spicer, read out the result. He rose slowly to his feet, revelling in the moment. ‘The results of the Conservative Parliamentary Party leadership ballot first round …’ ‘Get on with it’, shouted a male voice from the back of the room. Sir Michael started again, as if he was punishing the heckler. ‘The results of the Conservative Parliamentary Party leadership ballot first round are as follows: Liam Fox 32, Kenneth Clarke 66, David Davis 100. I therefore declare that Kenneth Clarke and David Davis will contest the party members’ ballot.’
Few had expected Davis to win a clear, albeit narrow, majority of MPs. Speculation mounted over whether Ken Clarke would pull out, thereby saving the party the cost of an all-members’ ballot. Party activist John Strafford, a doughty campaigner for internal Conservative Party democracy, immediately took to the airwaves to put the case for the vote taking place. Clarke’s team were split. His canny campaign manager Richard Chalk relished the battle ahead, but he knew that the numbers didn’t stack up and that, barring a miracle, Davis would win by a landslide. He recognised that although party members rather liked Clarke’s bluff style, they would never trust his views on Europe. At midday on the Wednesday, he walked into Clarke’s office and advised his candidate to pull out. ‘I’ve drafted a concession statement, Ken’, he said. ‘You may want to consider it.’
On Tuesday I encouraged the Parliamentary Party to send a clear signal to the membership in the country – to tell them who commanded the greatest level of support in Parliament to lead us into the next general election. I hoped that would be me. Earlier this morning I telephoned David Davis to congratulate him on his vote. In a very short time David has come a long way. I, too, have travelled a journey. But it is one which stops here. I made another call this morning, to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Michael Spicer, to tell him I would not be allowing my name to go forward to a ballot of the party members in the country and that I am pledging my support to David Davis as Britain’s next Conservative Prime Minister. I do not pretend this has been an easy decision. There will be many in the party who believe I should allow the membership to have its say. But to carry on when I am clear in my own mind that there is no prospect of winning would be a self-indulgence. Three years ago, David stood aside in favour of Michael Howard in order to allow the party a chance of uniting before the election. That was the right decision. My decision today, while painful for some, and which I know will be criticised by others, is essential if we are to take the fight to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as soon as possible. By standing aside now I want to give David Davis the best possible chance of hitting New Labour where it hurts through the autumn – and I intend to do all I can to help him. When Michael Howard set the timetable for this leadership election he took a risk. But it was a risk worth taking. For the first time in some years people are actually listening to what we are saying; they are receptive to our ideas; they are willing us to win. Our challenge now is to unite behind our new leader, support him in both good times and bad and carry the fight to Labour.4
But five minutes later events took a different course. Chalk took a call from the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who informed him that CCHQ were briefing that a Davis coronation was likely to happen by the end of the week. Indeed, this was coming from the party chairman Francis Maude himself, Chalk soon ascertained. ‘Get me that fucking Francis Maude on the phone’, barked Chalk to a campaign aide. It wasn’t a pretty conversation. Chalk accused Maude of scuppering any chance of a concession and wondered what on earth he was playing at.5 He suddenly became aware of a hulking presence by his side. ‘Give me the phone’, demanded Clarke. He put it to his ear. ‘Francis, you can take your off-the-record briefings and shove them where the sun don’t shine. My campaign continues.’ And with that he slammed the phone down. ‘Onwards!’ he declared.
Over the next six weeks the two candidates traipsed up and down the country debating at regional hustings and taking part in TV debates. Neither made a great gaffe and neither wiped the floor with the other. In the result of the final ballot, announced on 6 December, David Davis won with the expected two-thirds share of the vote.
His victory speech was magnanimous. He set out three priorities for his leadership: to unify and modernise the party, to have a root-and-branch review of all party policies and institutions, and to look like an alternative government.
Later that day he started building his shadow cabinet. Although Davis was seen to come from the right of the party, he was also a political realist; he knew that he had to build some bridges with the centre-left. His first call was to his defeated rival. ‘Ken, I need you on board’, he said. ‘Will you serve?’ He knew full well what the answer would be, but it suited him to go through the motions.
His next call was to William Hague. This time Davis hoped that the answer would be more positive, as he been at great pains to court Hague throughout the leadership election. Hague had been out of frontline politics for four years, and many questioned his hunger for office. Furthermore, Davis and Hague had never been close, despite both representing Yorkshire seats; Hague had found it difficult to forgive Davis for refusing to serve on his front bench during his own leadership. Whatever his reservations about returning, however, Hague knew his duty.
So, Hague was on board – but not, as all the pundits had speculated, as shadow chancellor or foreign secretary. No, he was to be party chairman, with a remit to shake up the party structures, revitalise the troops, radically change the candidate selection processes and go round the country stirring up enthusiasm. Importantly, it would also leave him time to write his books. Job done, thought Davis. Who could possibly think that would be a bad appointment? Apart, possibly, from Hague’s wife Ffion …
But then the difficulties started. George Osborne has only been in the shadow chancellor’s job for six months. Osborne and Davis had always got on well, but Davis wanted his own man in the post; he was a keen reader of political history and knew that he and his shadow chancellor needed to work hand in glove. It was Damian Green who got the call. His first reaction was to quote Margaret Beckett when asked by Tony Blair to be Foreign Secretary. ‘Fuck me!’ he exclaimed. Although on the dripping wet socially liberal wing of the party, Green was as dry as dust economically and had played a pivotal role in advising Davis during the leadership election. Osborne was made shadow chief secretary.
What to do with David Cameron? Cameron and Davis had known each other for a long time. For a brief period they had met each Tuesday and Thursday to work out John Major’s best lines for Prime Ministers’ Questions, but they had never been close. Davis regarded Cameron with suspicion. He had never warmed to Etonians – but he also recognised Cameron’s political skills and his ability to communicate on TV. Davis had received many plaudits for his performance as shadow home secretary and he had shifted party policy towards a much more libertarian stance, in the face of bitter opposition from Michael Howard. He wanted to appoint Cameron to succeed him but needed his reassurance that he would not seek to revert to the old authoritarian ways. It was an assurance Cameron was happy to give. ‘Don’t worry, David’, Cameron joked. ‘I’ll make sure I have Shami Chakrabarti on speed dial 1!’
In other appointments, Andrew Mitchell became shadow foreign secretary, succeeding Liam Fox, who decided that any other job would be a demotion and flounced off to the back benches. Francis Maude, an ally of Davis in the 1990s, was sacked, and no place was found for Oliver Letwin. Derek Conway became Chief Whip.
Long-time Davis ally Nick Herbert was put in charge of a full-scale policy review, with a remit to report by the summer of 2007. ‘Look at everything, Nick’, ordered Davis. ‘Nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing.’ It was a remark Davis was to live to regret. Herbert set about his task with vigour. He was a member of the shadow cabinet but with no specific portfolio. But it wasn’t long before he grew frustrated by the inability of his colleagues to think radically and innovatively. Many of them, he felt, were still stuck in the politics of the 1990s. His solution was to ignore them completely while he patiently constructed a policy platform under the old Davis campaign slogan of ‘Modern Conservatism’.
The next few years proved tough. It took Davis some time to adjust to the rigours of leadership. He resented the fact that he couldn’t just ring up a journalist for a gossip, as had been his wont. He hated the glad-handing of senior party bigwigs and hated even more the inevitable schmoozing of party donors. Even worse was the interest the press took in his family. He and the Murdoch empire were already at daggers drawn over his stance on civil liberties, so it came as little surprise when his press spokesman, Guto Harri, took a call from the editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, alerting him to the fact that the next day his paper would be carrying an interview with the wife of a man who had run a company Davis had shut down while working for Tate & Lyle. The man had committed suicide a few months later.
‘That’s it,’ spluttered Davis, when he was told the news. ‘These people are out of control. I never want to hear Coulson’s name again.’ It proved to be a vain wish.
Herbert’s policy review continued apace, but in mid 2006 a serious leak occurred, when the Daily Telegraph published a story that Herbert was actively considering a radical proposal to cut the armed forces. He considered the MoD budget to be unsustainable and argued that Britain needed to take a less active role in policing the world. ‘DAVIS TO CUT ARMY BY A FIFTH’, raged the Telegraph front page. Liam Fox, the former shadow foreign secretary, took to the airwaves to denounce the proposal. In an interview with Sky News he said: ‘No one who calls themselves a Conservative could possibly consider cutting Britain’s armed forces by a fifth.’ He continued: ‘Whoever wrote this paper should be ashamed of themselves. I hope our leader will take action against them.’ Meanwhile, shadow defence secretary Patrick Mercer issued a statement which amounted to saying ‘over my dead body’. It was a sign of things to come.
William Hague, however, had the party in the palm of his hands. For him, being chairman was the perfect job: no policy work, appearing on the Today programme every other day, attending a few strategy meetings at Conservative Central Office (as it had been renamed), and glad-handing party bigwigs. It left all the time in the world to continue writing his history books.
One of Hague’s first acts was to reform the candidate selection process. When he had been chairman, Davis had started the process of attracting more female candidates, which had been carried on by Theresa May and Liam Fox. But it had been to little effect. When May argued in shadow cabinet for positive discrimination and the formation of a priority list of female candidates, David Cameron put the counter case. ‘We need positive discrimination like a hole in the head’, he said. ‘Surely we should be going out there and looking for better female candidates and encouraging them to come forward?’ Davis concurred. ‘Stop putting so many useless men on the list, and increase the proportion of women’, he suggested.
Gradually the Conservatives started to rise in the polls. An increasingly unpopular Tony Blair was in constant unarmed combat with his Chancellor Gordon Brown. It looked like a government which was falling apart at the seams. Blair’s dominance in the House of Commons was fading as every day passed. Davis proved an unexpected hit at Prime Minister’s Questions, regularly besting Blair at the despatch box. ‘You were the future once’, was one of his best lines, fed to him by David Cameron at their regular Wednesday morning planning session.
In late 2006 Davis and his constitutional affairs spokeswoman, Theresa May, published plans for the creation of an English Parliament. For several years Davis had been concerned at the constitutional imbalance left by Labour’s devolution plans. He scented a growing unrest among the English, who saw their hard-earned tax monies disappearing north of Hadrian’s Wall and west of Offa’s Dyke. And still the Welsh and Scots whinged.
Several years earlier Davis had supported a campaign, run by the maverick Tory MP Teresa Gorman, proposing the establishment of a full-scale English Parliament which would have full control of domestic policy. Davis had formed a secret policy group to consider the future of the Barnett Formula – it didn’t have one – and the powers and make-up of a proper English Parliament. His plans were denounced by The Guardian as ‘endangering the Union’ and by The Independent as ‘stark staring constitutional vandalism on an industrial scale’. The public, however, saw it differently – even in Scotland.
Davis was famed for his reputation for wargaming every possible scenario. He knew that his biggest test would come when Blair eventually handed over to his rival. Unlike many of his advisers, Davis knew that he shouldn’t underestimate Gordon Brown. He regarded him as a formidable machine operator; what he lacked in empathetic skills, he more than made up for in sheer ruthlessness – which was why Davis always expected Brown to call a general election as soon as he could politically get away with it. He told his closest aides that the most likely date was the autumn of 2007. He told Nick Herbert to ensure that a draft manifesto was ready to go, and to ensure that no one saw the text until he had personally signed it off. He knew it would be incendiary.
What Davis hadn’t counted on was the astonishingly impressive performance of Brown during his first two months as Prime Minister. He displayed a calm sure-footedness and an ability to react to a crisis which few would have credited him with. Slowly but surely the Conservative lead in the polls evaporated. By the beginning of September it was clear that if Brown went to the country he might possibly pull off an historic fourth Labour win. The Labour Party conference at the end of September took on the air of a pre-election rally. Rumours were rife that Brown would call the election on the day of the Conservative leader’s conference speech the week after. It was then that Davis launched what became known inside CCO as Operation Sidewinder.
And it was in those few days that Brown’s hubris proved to be his undoing. A visit to Iraq was meant to show a Prime Minister on the world stage, in contrast to pictures of the Conservative leader quaffing champagne at his conference. Instead, Davis’s press spokesman successfully persuaded the media that it was a political stunt, using Our Boys to aid his re-election efforts. But the real missile was to come on the Tuesday of the Tory conference. On the Monday the shadow chancellor, spurred on by shadow chief secretary, George Osborne, announced the abolition of inheritance tax for anyone with assets of less than £2 million. The papers loved it. But it was a day later that the Brown stuff hit the fan in Number Ten. Up got shadow foreign secretary Andrew Mitchell to announce that a future Conservative government would hold a national referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. ‘We’ll give the British people the chance to decide the nation’s destiny’, he declared. ‘We can’t put this off any longer, and the Conservative Party will abide by whatever decision the nation makes.’ The roar which emanated from the conference hall was louder than anyone remembered – even from the days of the Leaderene herself.
‘Master stroke’ was the headline on the Daily Mail website. ‘Davis takes huge gamble’, said The Guardian. ‘Everybody Out’ trilled the Daily Telegraph. The fact that it was already a Liberal Democrat policy announced by Ming Campbell only two and a half weeks earlier had passed most people by.
Within hours, UKIP leader Nigel Farage announced the disbanding of his party. ‘We’ve achieved our aim’, he declared. ‘I urge all our members and supporters to hold their noses and vote Conservative, and then vote No in the referendum.’
When the Tory leader heard the news he punched the air. ‘Gotcha’, he exclaimed to no one in particular. Did he mean Farage or Brown? No one really knew, and frankly, no one cared.
By the time David Davis stood up to make his leader’s speech two opinion polls had been published, one showing a three-point swing to the Conservatives and another with a marginal Tory lead.
It became known as the Election That Never Was when Gordon Brown announced the following Saturday that he’d never planned to call an election anyway. The million leaflets being pulped in a south London incinerator told a different story, as Simon Walters reported in the next day’s Mail on Sunday. ‘FRIT & FRAZZLED’ declared the front-page headline above a Photoshopped picture of the beleaguered Prime Minister being fed into the incinerator alongside his election leaflets.
It was not all plain sailing. One-time leadership contender David Cameron resigned from the shadow cabinet in June 2008 following the loss of a Commons vote over a government bill designed to permit the holding of terror suspects for 42 days without charge. He also resigned his seat, causing an unwelcome by-election in Witney. Davis was furious: Cameron had given him very little notice of his intention. He was so shocked by the young pretender’s action that initially he found himself unable to speak. That soon passed, and a stream of vitriol was aimed at Cameron, in conversations with his advisers. ‘If he wins his fucking by-election, I’m not having him back’, ranted Davis. ‘If he does it once, he could do it again.’ He came under pressure to replace Cameron with his former rival Liam Fox, but that was never going to happen. Fox would have turned the party’s home affairs policies back in an authoritarian direction. And in any case, Fox and Davis had never really got on since they had both served as junior Foreign Office ministers in the mid 1990s. Instead, Davis turned to his long-time ally Dominic Grieve. ‘I should have appointed him to start with’, he remarked to colleagues.
The next two years were punctuated by leadership election rumours – and for once, they had nothing to do with the Conservative Party. Even so, there were those in the Tory hierarchy who couldn’t get used to the Davis leadership. ‘I thought that Major chappie as a bit of a pleb but he had nothing on this Davis oik’, one Tory peer was overheard saying at a party conference soiree. Davis laughed when he saw it in the Black Dog column of the Mail on Sunday. It was something he’d heard many times before during his rise through the Tory ranks, and it troubled him not a jot. Any chips on his shoulders had been despatched many moons ago.
Davis had one or two more surprises up his sleeve. One of his first acts as party leader had been to announce the end of the traditional party conference; the 2007 conference proved to be the last of its kind. In future two three-day events would be held – one a policy forum, where party members would have proper policy debates, and the other an unashamed American-style rally. The overwhelming feeling was one of relief that no longer would the party have to trek to Blackpool and experience rubber-sheeted beds.
Secondly, the candidate selection system was changed so that 50 per cent of candidates on the approved list were women.6 Associations were still free to choose who they wanted, but the format of selection meetings was also radically changed. Gone were the set-piece speeches, in were filmed TV and radio-style interviews. And the final three candidates were forced to debate with each other, on the platform at the same time.
One thing the Tory leader had despised, both during his time as party chairman in 2001–02 and afterwards, was having to grease up to party donors. He knew he had little alternative, but the thought of listening to another lecture by Stuart Wheeler made him physically queasy. So he set up a secret group to consider the future funding of political parties, led by former party chairman Lord Parkinson. For once it didn’t leak.
It had long been in Davis’s mind that he should announce a formal commitment to reform party financing right at the start of the election campaign. He knew there would be flak from the trade unions and the Labour Party, but the electoral gains would be huge, especially after the cash-for-honours scandal and the sacking of Labour Party General Secretary Peter Watt over the loans affair. Indeed, Watt agreed to appear alongside Davis at the press conference in April 2010, at the beginning of the election campaign, at which he announced that, under a Tory government, from 2013 no individual company or donor would be allowed to donate more than £50,000 in any twelve-month period. There would be a five-year transitional period in which all parties with any national or European representation would gain an element of state funding, but that would disappear after 2018. There was a minor storm about the BNP being eligible for state funding, but that soon blew over. ‘If we can’t raise the money to survive, we don’t deserve to survive’, was the message Davis wanted to transmit. ‘We’ve got to prove to people that we’re worth supporting.’ He said that a future Conservative administration would make donations of any sort to political parties tax-deductible. In effect, he was suggesting the transformation of political parties into charities.
And so the election campaign continued. It was dominated by the three TV debates between the party leaders. Although they all received high ratings, none of the three scored a knockout blow. Nick Clegg did surprisingly well in the first debate, but Davis was thought to have equalled him by concentrating on the TV audience rather than the audience in the hall. Both stared, gimlet-eyed, into the camera.
The only near-knockout blow to any of the leaders came in the last week, when Gordon Brown was caught on a microphone in Rochdale criticising a woman voter for her views on immigration. Rather like the ‘Prescott punch’ in 2001 it had the opposite effect to that which political commentators had imagined. Brown became a different politician during the last week of the campaign and gave the speeches of his life. Davis, meanwhile, concentrated on not dropping a bullock. Internal party polling looked good, but the result was on a knife edge. Campaign Director Lynton Crosby said it was the first election in many years that he couldn’t call.
Davis spent polling day in his constituency. At 9am he and his wife Doreen were filmed casting their votes. He spent the rest of the morning in one of his outbuildings, climbing up the wall on his mountaineering equipment.
Reports started to come in of a much higher than expected turnout. What did it mean? Were people turning out to vote to eject Gordon Brown, or was it Labour voters who were turning out in unexpectedly large numbers to save him? Within hours the country would find out.
I was David Davis’s chief of staff from May to December 2005, so I have written this story from that perspective. Some of the events described above really did happen. Some I have adapted and others I have completely made up. If Davis had won, there were several initiatives which would have been implemented which I describe above (albeit perhaps in an exaggerated form) but much of what I write is clearly meant to be fictional.
Or is it?
1 This conversation took place between Iain Dale and Davis press officer David Hart.
2 In reality the confrontation was between Iain Dale and Tom Bradby.
3 Nick Boles played a leading part in spinning the Davis speech for Cameron.
4 This is a rewritten version of a concession speech Iain Dale had prepared for David Davis that day.
5 This conversation actually took place between Iain Dale and Francis Maude.
6 This had in fact been a Davis promise in the leadership campaign.