Andrew Neil talks to the veteran Conservative MP and former cabinet minister about Boris Johnson’s troubles, Rishi Sunak’s plans to ease the cost-of-living crisis and life as a rebel on the backbenches
Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory, a series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events and to influence our understanding of them.
My guest in this episode is a veteran Conservative MP who was first elected in 1987. He’s been Chairman of the party and after the Brexit referendum, became the first Secretary of State for Exiting the EU. David Davis is a staunch defender of civil liberties; we talk about that and his views on the Johnson government, Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis. We also talk about his call for the prime minister to resign over Partygate.
“You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.”David Davis addressing Boris Johnson at PMQs on 19 January in the House of Commons
Andrew Neil, narrating: Has he changed since that moment in the House of Commons in January and what does he think of the government’s approach to the cost-of-living crisis? This is The Backstory from Tortoise.
Andrew Neil: David Davis, when you were Shadow Home Secretary, you used to talk about bagging a ministerial resignation like big game hunting; you had to kill with the first shot. Did you go too early with your call for Boris Johnson to resign?
David Davis: No, that was aiming to do something different. The first thing to remember is with Conservative leaders, it’s always a slow death. The idea that the Conservative party is a ruthless organisation that sets about dispatching rapidly its failing leaders is just not true. Theresa May took two years to go, John Major never went even though the challenge and the danger of keeping him was obvious so it takes a long time but what was happening back at the beginning of the year was that there were a lot of people hesitating – should I go, should I not, shall I send a letter in, shall I not? And I took the view, frankly, that somebody had to say that this needed to happen and somebody – up until then it had mostly fairly new junior Members of Parliament and I thought somebody with a bit of profile should say it, and it worked, it got round the world as it were but it still – and I said at the time, I was interviewed fairly shortly afterwards just for five minutes and I said “The thing I fear is the death of a thousand cuts, that it spreads gradually to the rest of Cabinet and then to rest of government and takes until the autumn to happen.” And that, I fear, unfortunately is all coming true.
Andrew Neil: So, you think it is still death by a thousand cuts and that he will, Mr Johnson, will be gone by the autumn of this year?
David Davis: Yes, I do and the reasons in essence are that the problems keep coming, there’s a pipeline of them, there are others to come down the road. There’s PPE, there’s the investigation in London which comes back to him, the lady whose name I can’t instantly remember. There’s the most dangerous one of all from his point of view, is the Privileges Committee because if they judge that he has lied to the House deliberately, then that will lead us either … either he’ll resign or there will be a constitutional crisis, so there are a whole series of things coming, but the thing is, every time you see the headlines of a flood of letters going in, a flood is two to three to four, it’s not 20 to 30, you know, and so they will gradually build up and the reason I said autumn is because it’s the last chance. The party, lots of members of the party will do sets of calculations – and I’m afraid this is terribly cynical but it’s the way it works. They’ll do lots of calculations about their own seats, about their prospect for staying in government and keeping a job and all that sort of stuff and if, in the autumn, it still looks bleak – and it will I think, no so much care of Boris as care of other aspects of policy – then they’ll realise that’s their last chance because next year he could call an election in short notice.
Andrew Neil: He does have this ability though to defy prediction and to survive. It takes 54 letters from Tory MPs, 15 per cent of the Parliamentary party have to want him to go to trigger an election on his leadership. Now, the prime minister has been fined for breaking the law in Downing Street, the Tories are now regularly behind in the polls, Labour has not a massive lead but a reasonably comfortable and consistent lead now, his own personal ratings have tanked. The party culture he has presided over in 10 Downing Street has been laid bare in all its gore, all its embarrassment by Sue Gray but he’s still there and he seems to think he’s over the worst.
David Davis: Well, you use the word embarrassment; it’s a very important word when it comes to Boris, or rather the absence of it is. I always used to say when I was Public Accounts Committee Chairman that the primary weapon of a parliamentarian is embarrassment, the ability to embarrass the government – you can’t embarrass Boris. So take a couple of the examples I was citing – when Theresa May didn’t lose the leadership vote but came close, she said I’ll do this and then I’ll leave. John Major didn’t wait for a leadership vote, he called one himself. There is a certain aspect of character around each of those that doesn’t apply to Boris. Boris’s basic strategy, it’s not terribly complicated, is sit it out, wait, people get bored, the subject changes, I find a better argument, I do something good, I score some hit somewhere, something comes along.
Andrew Neil: A war in Ukraine.
David Davis: Yes, and so that’s his … it’s always been. When he was Mayor of London you had the same sort of thing happen. I told on one occasion when he came out, he had had some sort of terrible things in the papers, and said to the staff, “Remember, this is just a show and the show will go on.” That’s his stance.
Andrew Neil: You mentioned the investigation involving Jennifer Arcuri …
David Davis: Ah yes, that’s right.
Andrew Neil: … whose name you had a little trouble remembering there but that’s who it is. That happened when he was Mayor of London, if anything happened. Do you think that is still a danger to him?
David Davis: Oh yes, all these things are. Because what we’re in, and I’m afraid your listeners will think this is a terribly mechanistic argument but I’m afraid it’s just the truth, what it is is a sort of micro-ratchet. A letter goes in, another letter goes in, very, very rarely they come out, very few of the ones are said to have come out. A letter goes in and it is a visible process and it’s a sudden death process and so we might be at 53 letters today, I don’t think we are but we might be, in which case, one slip …
Andrew Neil: Tilts it.
David Davis: Tilts it and so anything could do it. The other thing to remember is apart from the calculations that MPs do, and frankly the moral stances some probably take as well, there is also other influences on them, particularly their own associations and so on and they get tired too. You interviewed I think two days before I intervened on Boris …
Andrew Neil: Actually, it was the day before.
David Davis: The day before, it was quite close in time, it is largely your fault, I fear! [Laughs]
Andrew Neil: It usually is!
David Davis: And I thought, well, I’m going to make a thousand enemies but so be it, you know. What was astonishing to me was the next day, the Thursday, I had gone … of course, we were wearing masks and I got on the Tube wearing my mask. When I got to the Tube, I normally take my mask off when I get to the ticket barrier, right. I got applauded as I went through the ticket barrier, you know, and people kept coming up to me for the next week and saying, “Well said, Mr Davis, you spoke for us.” And I went to an Association dinner in York the next day and I thought, mm, this is going to be heavy weather, at least half of them are going to be pro-Boris and so on. It turned out, a hundred people, four pro-Boris, 90-odd the other way, you know, and so I think this is percolating back and as I say, it’s a sudden death outcome.
Andrew Neil: But the biggest threat must surely be the Parliamentary Privileges Committee.
David Davis: That is, yes.
Andrew Neil: But the bar is quite high: it’s not enough that he misled the House …
David Davis: It’s deliberately.
Andrew Neil: … it has to be deliberate.
David Davis: And this is where people will have to make a judgement. I think had there been, I don’t know, four or five fines there would have been a problem, and I’ll come back to why in a second, or had there been a dozen photos it would have been a problem. Why do I say that? Because broadly Boris’s line has been, I wasn’t told. Well, I wasn’t told doesn’t hold up if you were actually there, I think, and you are holding a glass of wine. I’m not prudish about having a drink of wine even at work, frankly, if you are working 24 hours a day but what I think it does, is it points to knowledge and that’s the … It is normally incredibly hard for a Privileges Committee to find a guilty verdict on deliberate misleading but I think he’s used the thing, ‘I wasn’t told’, so many times. ‘As far as I’m aware’, that sort of form of words, I think that’s where they’ll look and that’s where I’ll expect them to look.
Andrew Neil: One of the things surely that has kept him in situ, is the absence of any obvious successor. Do you see an obvious successor?
David Davis: Well, look, I don’t comment on the would-be successors but I will do to this extent. Your question you have to answer there is would the successors, and there are probably half a dozen prospective, realistic prospective successors, would any of them have done a worse job? Take Ukraine which has been seen to be his saviour for the moment; would they have done something different? Well, I don’t think so because actually most of the significance of British involvement was essentially an MOD policy, driven by Ben Wallace
Andrew Neil: The Secretary of State for Defence.
David Davis: That’s correct and I don’t think that let’s say Jeremy Hunt or Rishi Sunak – who has probably struck out now but he was one of the ones at the time when the argument was being made – or any of them frankly would have stopped that happening. Neither would they … They might not quite have made the public presentation of it that Boris has done, the sort of slightly sub-Churchillian stuff, but I’m not sure that’s that important so the question is would they, and you may not think they are the best people in the world but after all, you and I were around when Margaret Thatcher took over and even though I was a supporter, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure back then that she could do the job.
Andrew Neil: It was a risk.
David Davis: It was a risk; these are all risks. The question you have to ask yourself is would they on balance, it the probability that they would do a less good job? I think the answer is not so.
Andrew Neil: But getting rid of a prime minister, you would want some kind of idea as to where the gene pool is for his successor and the Tory gene pool seems quite depleted at the moment.
David Davis: Well, that is partly I think a strategy by Boris himself of not having people around him who might be challengers. Jeremy Hunt is a good case in point; I’m not a Jeremy Hunt advocate, don’t get me wrong …
Andrew Neil: He was the former Health Secretary.
David Davis: He was the former Health Secretary and he was also the former Foreign Secretary and he came second in the leadership contest so that gives you some …
Andrew Neil: In the summer of 2019.
David Davis: And it gives you certain, if not rights, expectations. So, for example, when I came second to David Cameron; he said he was ruminating over Shadow Secretary of Defence. I said “I don’t want to do that. I’ll do Shadow Home or nothing, I’m happy to go to the back benches.” And of course, he gave me Shadow Home and that’s what you would expect. For Boris to offer Jeremy a demotion in my view was improper, you don’t ask the person who has given you a run for your money and has come second in the party’s batting order to take a step down and this applies across the board. Where’s Liam Fox, why is Penny Mordaunt not in, where’s Greg Clarke? There are quite a lot of people around who could well have been in that Cabinet who are not there. I very nearly sent him a Christmas present, the year of his election victory, general election victory, which was a book about Lincoln called Team of Rivals.
Andrew Neil: Yes, which is about the quality of the people around Abraham Lincoln.
David Davis: All his rivals called in and it made a fabulous Cabinet. I didn’t eventually because I thought he might think I’m trying to bully my way back in and I’d said to him no, but nevertheless I was tempted because that’s precisely what I thought he was going to do. And do you know what, if he had I think he’d have had less problems. You have got to give him his due, he is a good attention holder, he is fabulous at holding people’s attention. He isn’t the best speaker actually but he does make good speeches. He writes good speeches and he delivers them well. He’s not far from the despatch box but he is good at holding attention, he’s good at getting the identification of the public with him. Somebody like that being the Chairman of the Board I think would have been a fabulous position for him and I don’t know whether it was his own judgement or other people advising him – remember early on he was being advised by Cummings and that pack who have no respect for any MPs at all and as a result probably would have said, oh just keep them out.
Andrew Neil: I wonder if Boris Johnson isn’t emblematic of a wider Conservative malaise. Nobody seems to know what he stands for but nobody is quite sure anymore what the Tories stand for, do you?
David Davis: Yes, well it’s a matter of debate, that’s certainly true! I mean part of this, part of this is not his fault. When I voted for Boris to be leader, I did not foresee Covid.
Andrew Neil: No one did.
David Davis: No, but that’s quite important because that Covid period sort of blotted out government. It probably shouldn’t have but it did and the result of which is we had sort of forgotten what our aims were. When you come out of a general election, you’ve just got your manifesto, got the rubber stamp of public approval on it you hope and so you then set about carrying it out. All they had the bandwidth for frankly was picking up pieces on Covid and picking up pieces on Brexit, not even driving Brexit forward, so there was a sort of losing the way I think and what this period we’re in right now, between now and Christmas, is about is trying to re-find our way and a lot of my fellow Tories were rather uncomfortable at the end of a perfectly workmanlike Queen’s Speech but it wasn’t a banner-flying Queen’s Speech, it wasn’t a Queen’s Speech saying right, we’re back on an even keel now broadly and it is time to get back to being Conservative and that’s not showing at the moment.
Andrew Neil: Well, let’s come on to the Chancellor’s recent statement dealing with the cost-of-living crisis which followed a Spring Statement that he made and, of course, the budget’s coming up in the autumn. Has the Chancellor done enough or too much?
David Davis: Not enough, broadly, but too much as well. There are sort of two or three different measures here: measure number one is what’s the state of the ordinary family’s weekly budget? That in many ways is the most important thing. The test of a country, the test of a government sorry, is how well it looks after its people, that’s what it’s there for, that’s why it’s a democracy and on that we’re not scoring terribly well. The Chancellor, to be fair to him, was given really duff information by both the Treasury and the Bank of England.
Andrew Neil: On their predictions on the economy?
David Davis: They both got it completely wrong.
Andrew Neil: On inflation?
David Davis: On inflation, from the Bank but on tax revenue from the Treasury.
Andrew Neil: Because they underestimated it?
David Davis: 90 billion. Work out what that is, so your listeners think about this in real money because 90 million is what?
Andrew Neil: It is twice the defence budget.
David Davis: Or, more pertinent to them, £3000 per household, we got it wrong by £3000 per household, right! So, they have got tons of money coming in. Of course, we are still in negative balance but we are crawling out of Covid but if you have got to balance … I am a fiscal Conservative, if I’m going to balance the books, I balance it over five years or a full cycle, not over the first year out of a crisis. So, to answer your question, at one level he was misled in two directions; that meant he’s taking too much tax. He should have cancelled NICS, the National Insurance increase; he should have cancelled next year’s Corporation Tax increase.
Andrew Neil: Which is increasing from 19 to 25 per cent.
David Davis: That’s right and he shouldn’t be increasing, he shouldn’t be putting windfall tax on either. The windfall tax at one level is true, it will probably raise one billion. He says five billion? Listen, I used to be in a big corporation, I was Director of a FTSE100 company. If I were in their business I’d be investing like mad, even in negative outcome projects, to save 90 per cent of the money in tax.
Andrew Neil: Because that’s the tax allowances.
David Davis: Basically, for ever million you invest, you get 900,000 back. Well, you’d have to be an idiot not to take that right up to the hilt, right, and it means you will take all the marginal projects, not all of which will work, but you will get your tax money back so it’s not going to raise that much money but the symbolism of it is terrible. Not just in the energy industry – in fact less in the energy industry and more everywhere else. People look at Britain and we think of ourselves as a stable tax environment. Are we hell! We’ve had five windfall taxes over the course of your and my career basically, in banking and mostly in energy, so I’d look at this and say my cost to capital is a bit high there, if I got a ranking order of investment Britain is not going to be at the top of it. So, it’s done harm, quite a big invisible harm on a big scale and it has not brought any money in.
Andrew Neil: Well, we don’t know yet, I mean it is 25 per cent which is quite a lot there and we know the energy companies are awash with money, in fact the head of BP described his company as a cash machine.
David Davis: That’s Mr Looney you’re talking about.
Andrew Neil: Yes, and this is called in the business now the Looney Levy! So, we’ll see. He says five billion, we’ll see. I think he could actually get a bit more than that, he may get less as you say but there was a case for doing it, was there not because it isn’t going to affect the investment plans.
David Davis: Well, not the first cycle.
Andrew Neil: Mrs Thatcher did it, Gordon Brown did it, not all on the energy companies but you know when it was a windfall tax. Gordon Brown did it and we had ten years of solid economic growth. George Osborne did it as well. It doesn’t seem to be the big, one way or the other it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal breaker.
David Davis: Well, for me, firstly even if he gets five billion, bear in mind the error margin is 90 billion, I’m afraid it’s a long way inside the error margin, it’s a third even of his forecast increase in help this time round, at its maximum.
Andrew Neil: Because he is putting in 21 billion to help so what you’re really saying is because the Treasury forecasts were wrong, because tax revenues were more buoyant, because he was taking out the furlough money and other pandemic spending, that actually he had enough money to do the package to help families without a windfall tax. That’s I think what you’re saying.
David Davis: That’s exactly right, he had enough money – I’d go further than that, he had enough money to cancel NICS, cancel the VAT on fuel, put the 20 quid back into Universal Credit and then do something on top of that to actually control the cost, to subsidise the cost. He could have done all of that way inside the margins that he was working to one year ago when he set the budget to settle those things so I wouldn’t have done it this way. I’m very old fashioned, I don’t think about Conservative policy, I don’t think that a Conservative government should basically take all your money away and then hand it back as pocket money. I think you’re the best decider on how you spend your money, not the government and that’s true whether you are rich or poor frankly, so that’s the first thing to say. The second thing to say is there is – which we didn’t get round to – which is there is a real risk in this on impinging on growth and there are two reasons that’s a problem. One, it hits his tax revenues for next year, we don’t really know where they will go but two, we’ve got stagflation coming down the line and if you go into stagflation, low growth, the solution to stagflation, that is high inflation and low growth together, are incredibly painful. You and I in our earlier lives lived through a decade and a half of stagflation; it was a nightmare. So, it is really, really problematic and I don’t think the Treasury has got a proper strategy for what’s coming.
Andrew Neil: But was the Chancellor right, just to finish up on this cost-of-living package, was the Chancellor right to target the resources that he had on those who most needed it, basically what I would call helicopter money. He’s sending a cheque to people rather than what a lot of Tories wanted was, oh cut tax, take a penny off income tax, take five percentage points off VAT. Was he right to do it that way because these broader tax cut ways would have also resulted in more money for a lot of people who weren’t necessarily first in the queue to get more money?
David Davis: No, they’re not but the simple truth is we collected last year the greatest quantity of tax ever in the history of this country, ever. We are at the top end of the tax burden; we need to bring it down. I would have altered the balance, you are quite right, I would have altered the balance to give as much back as … well, actually not to take away in the first place as much as possible from most people.
Andrew Neil: The National Insurance rise was clearly a big mistake, wasn’t it?
David Davis: A huge mistake, huge mistake.
Andrew Neil: And it didn’t have to be done.
David Davis: It was unnecessary, completely unnecessary and to put the numbers in context, we’ve talked about the 90 billion error, the National Insurance was about 13, 14 billion …
Andrew Neil: Correct, that’s right, per year.
David Davis: So, it’s one sixth of the error and we must expect that error to carry on because the truth is, we are going to grow from a higher base next year so I would have given more, taken less money in the first place and then done some focus work to make sure it was … but remember I said I’d also put back the 20 quid which they should never have taken out …
Andrew Neil: For the Universal Credit?
David Davis: For Universal Credit, exactly, because that’s really, really important. It’s food money, it’s not just energy, everything is going up 10 per cent.
Andrew Neil: And it would be spent.
David Davis: And it would be spent and it would go back into the economy. It doesn’t matter if you have an effective demand, a Keynesian model of growth or you have a supply-side model of growth, both of them will be helped by lower taxes and putting that money back into Universal Credit.
Andrew Neil: Well, if the Chancellor is listening, I’m sure he’s taking notes. You were a leading Brexiteer; are you disappointed by what Brexit has delivered so far?
David Davis: Well, let me put it this way, two things to say, three things to say. One, the roof hadn’t fallen in, we haven’t had the George Osborne disaster.
Andrew Neil: The punishment budget?
David Davis: The punishment budget and all that staff. If anything it is slightly better than other people in a sense. Number two, we haven’t however made the rapid progress on regulation in the new industries, I don’t care about the rest, in the new industries that we should have done and thirdly, I’m afraid the very reason I resigned from the Cabinet, which all flowed from Northern Ireland when Theresa May said to the Commission, she would accept full alignment between the north of Ireland and the south, which she did without telling me and that’s why I nearly resigned on the spot.
Andrew Neil: Which meant full alignment with the EU.
David Davis: Full alignment with the EU which then gives us either an internal border or a crisis and that has not yet been resolved.
Andrew Neil: Which I want to come on to but people didn’t vote for Brexit because the roof wouldn’t fall in. What have the benefits of Brexit been?
David Davis: Well, one of them is just democracy frankly. Let me, when I was … before I was Brexit Secretary, when we were having the referendum, my wife had a new kitchen installed, my punishment for taking all the time from home, and every time I came back, I met a new bunch of builders, painters, decorators and so on. They all came from West Yorkshire, they came from the industrial north, all red wall you might think of, right, and the sorts of comments that came back to me – comment number one, painter and decorator, are you in or out, Mr Davis? I’m out. Yes, me too. Why? Immigration. I thought, oh dear, here we go, you know, I’ll get a bigoted response. I said, don’t you like foreigners? No, no, no, he said, if I were a Bulgarian or Pole I’d be here, I think entirely what they are doing is right for them, their family but the only trouble is, Mr Davis, I’ve had no pay increase in ten years and if didn’t employ him, my son wouldn’t have a job. Well, we’re not in that position anymore, if anything we have got a labour deficit in the country.
Andrew Neil: Well, we have 1.3 million vacancies which is a record and non-EU immigration seems to be at record levels, did you tell the builder that?
David Davis: I did, I said, you do understand we’ll be opening it up. It won’t be for painters and decorators necessarily but for doctors and people like that.
Andrew Neil: So, overall, has it made any difference to the immigration numbers because it was a numbers concern for a lot of people?
David Davis: Well, that’s my point, it was an effect concern, you know, on his own wages and so on and you’re beginning to see that come through. Now, it means we’ve got to solve other problems about labour shortages but at least we got control.
Andrew Neil: Which may mean more immigration.
David Davis: Yes, it may do but at least we control it and we do it in such a way that it doesn’t harm our own people. The second one …
Andrew Neil: I am struggling to hear the benefits so far.
David Davis: Well, let me finish, the second one was a comment relating to the punishment budget, you remember the £4000 penalty …
Andrew Neil: Indeed.
David Davis: And literally as I drove in and got out my car, this guy who runs his own building firm said, Mr Davis, can you tell Mr Osborne from me, £4000 for my freedom, cheap at the price. He is talking about our right to make our own decisions and that’s actually important. It’s not very visible but it’s important.
Andrew Neil: No, but I’m not quite sure what decisions we’re now taking. For example, one vision which is a shorthand that covers as much as it illuminates but one vision was we’d be called Singapore-on-Thames; that we …
David Davies: Well, it’s a daft one but never mind.
Andrew Neil: Yes, but it was a Tory vision, it was we go for lower tax, smaller government, fewer regulations and regulations that were more suited to Britain rather than Europe-wide but since left, under this Conservative government, we’ve got higher tax, bigger government and just as many regulations so it wasn’t Singapore-on-Thames, was it? It was Paris-on-Thames!
David Davis: The reason you see me smiling, your audience can’t see me smiling, is that the person who coined Singapore-on-Thames was Remainer-in-Chief, Phillip Hammond, of course and which is why I went to Vienna to say no, this is not what we mean, we actually mean … We don’t mean massive rewriting of the regulation of all the conventional industries, it’s the new industries that matter and we have got some move on that, we are moving on that but that will take time to deliver and I make no bones about that, Andrew, it will take time to deliver on the regulatory changes.
Andrew Neil: Are you disappointed?
David Davis: No, well, let me accurate: I don’t think we have done as good a job as we could have done but I don’t think Brexit was wrong, I just think it is going to take longer to deliver and part of that is Covid and part of that is the direction of the current government.
Andrew Neil: Do you miss being in government?
David Davis: Not really!
Andrew Neil: Because you talk fluently and with some passion on these issues of government but now, you’re outside, don’t you sometimes think, I know what to do, I wish I was back in and I could do it?
David Davis: No, I’m quirky. I don’t know how many MPs you ever get in here but when you get them in …
Andrew Neil: Not too many!
David Davis: … you’ll find that I’d be an unusual one and the reason for that is over the course of 30-something years I have found that you can do, if you are smart about it, you can do as much outside government as in. The extent to which you can varies, it depends a bit on the majority, a big majority is harder than a small majority but you can do as much outside as in if you choose to and also you can pick your own subject. Of course, Brexit Secretary, you’ve got command over – well, you hope you’ve got command over Brexit – but nothing else, nothing else whereas now it’s about the economy one week, Brexit the next.
Andrew Neil: And you can talk about what you want.
David Davis: And you can influence what you want. Most of my colleagues don’t know the machinery of influence. Let me give you one current example: 12 weeks ago, the day after I intervened on Boris, the very next day on the Thursday, the most important thing I did that week wasn’t that, the most important thing I did that week was to start a debate in the House of Commons about controlling oligarchs.
Andrew Neil: The Russian oligarchs or all … ?
David Davis: The Russian oligarchs principally, yes. It was about lawfare and money and money laundering and cover-ups and all of that and I got 20 people to come and give a very expert debate. Now those people are the core of the new policy – if you know what you’re doing, you can do that. You’ve got to be able to deploy the Parliamentary weapons – truth be told, they’re getting weaker as government tries to deliberately weaken them, but you can do both.
Andrew Neil: You can influence the process. I understand that but aren’t you also almost just by nature one of its rebels? The Times says you are the most rebellious Tory MP in this Parliament.
David Davis: Well, in this Parliament I’m not surprised!
Andrew Neil: Because you haven’t got many competitors. But don’t you enjoy that more than the hard grind of government?
David Davis: No, actually rebellion is harder grind than government because … and opposition. Rebellion is like an internal opposition, let’s be clear about that. It’s harder, opposition and internal rebellion is harder than government. Why? Because you don’t have the vast legions of staff, you have to do the work yourself. I think you referred to me removing Home Secretaries – that was like doing a non-stop finals exam because you are … I know you of all interviewer’s pore through the data, you love reading the background and you love understanding the details. That’s what you have to do if you are an opponent of the government in power so whether it is as rebel or as opposition so it’s harder work in many ways but the truth is, I like both actually. The truth is I love being a Minister but I also love being an MP. I loved being a Minister when I was Europe Minister or a Cabinet Office Minister and I liked being Shadow Home Secretary, they’re all fun. Look, listen, we are, parliamentarians are some of the most privileged people in the world, they have huge power if they know how to exercise it; they have huge influence even if they don’t exercise power. They have the right to step in and be Robin Hood at a moment’s notice for all sorts of people and of course, even on an individual level too, so crikey, there’s nothing to complain about, it’s a bloody good job!
Andrew Neil: One thing that you’ve campaigned for on several fronts, particularly when you were on the backbenches, has been civil liberties. Where does that come from, your concern for civil liberties, your desire to improve them, your sense of when authoritarianism rears its head? Where does that come from?
David Davis: When I was very young, I was brought up by my grandfather who was a communist and although communists aren’t necessarily known for civil liberties, some of the causes he espoused were anti-Establishment causes and made me think about curbing the power of the state. Some of it was seeing how the state behaved when I was a member of it, you know, I wasn’t always very impressed by the way people misused power.
Andrew Neil: When you saw it from the inside?
David Davis: When I saw it from the inside. Some of it, probably the most influential, was when I was Public Accounts Committee Chairman which is the best job in the world.
Andrew Neil: And probably the most powerful of the House of Commons committees.
David Davis: Well, it was in my day and I assume it still is but it certainly was in my day. You were as powerful as anybody other than the top four in government; you were more powerful than most Cabinet Ministers and of course again, you can choose your subject and range anywhere and you have 700 fantastic civil servants in the National Audit Office, really, really good people and you can actually deliver it. When I did it, I made roughly a thousand recommendations to the government of which 950 were carried out, it gives you a sort of measure of it, but the point about that, my joke about it is when I am talking to Tory audiences, I say for five years I questioned the people who really run the country, the Permanent Secretaries or the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s if you like.
Andrew Neil: Of each government department?
David Davis: Of each government department in the Yes, Minister thing and I said the difference between you and me is that after me doing that for five years, you think Yes, Minister is a comedy, I know it’s a training film.
Andrew Neil: Given your interest and your support for civil liberties, when you look at what the government is doing with the Online Safety Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, or the Policing Bill or some various others, do you detect an authoritarian drift to this government because given that Boris Johnson is always thought to be a kind of libertarian …
David Davis: Yes, which was never true.
Andrew Neil: So, it wasn’t true but do you detect that kind of change?
David Davis: The proper test of that is when did Boris make a sacrifice to protect liberties? That’s the test, take on a real battle and make a sacrifice. No, there is an authoritarian drift. Part of it is because of populism really, not to put too fine a point on it.
Andrew Neil: What, playing to the crowd?
David Davis: Yes, the Rwanda policy is an example, for example.
Andrew Neil: Dealing with the illegal migrants?
David Davis: Sending illegal migrants or illegal asylum seekers to a country that has got malaria, Dengue fever, [37:20], you name it. If we sent prisoners there, I think we might be in court! You know, criminals.
Andrew Neil: Well, you might be in court anyway.
David Davis: Yes, we might be in court anyway, so you have got all of that sort of stuff and also there’s a degree of thoughtlessness again. Let me give you an example: there was a thing called the Overseas Offences Bill, it was trying to do pretty much the same thing as the current legacy legislation last week in Northern Ireland, to protect soldiers – if you want it in sort of Boris terms – from ambulance chasing lawyers, all of that. The Overseas Offences Bill was because they were worried about people coming from Afghanistan or Iraq and chasing down soldiers and prosecuting them for years and years afterwards. I said to them, if you do this you’re going to be in terrible trouble because you can’t put a statute of limitations on murder or torture or war crimes or genocide. They just ignored it and ignored it until I got George Robertson, ex-head of NATO.
Andrew Neil: Indeed, former Labour Cabinet Minister.
David Davis: In the Lords and six Chiefs of Defence staff to sign the equivalent of my amendment in the Lords and I also got the International Criminal Court to write and say, by the way, we’ll prosecute if you don’t. And then they dropped it. It was just carelessness, it was pig-headedness, frankly and so you have got a mixture of populism and carelessness which drives this and it is one of the reasons – much of our discussion today has been about the direction of the Conservative party and the reason it’s important for parties to have a direction is it immunises you against this sort of carelessness, this sort of giving into populism.
Andrew Neil: Because you’ve got some guidelines?
David Davis: You’ve got some guidelines and what’s more, it also immunises you to some extent from a tendency in modern times to think that a focus group or an opinion poll or the opinion of a 27-year-old PPE graduate are somehow better than the wisdom of all the people that went before it.
Andrew Neil: You were first elected as an MP in 1987, could you give us a good example of what you believed then but you don’t believe now or a major issue where you’ve changed your mind?
David Davis: I can’t, I can’t! [Laughs]
Andrew Neil: You are consistent – either consistently wrong or consistently right!
David Davis: Consistently wrong possibly but, you know, I think civil liberties … I was a member of Amnesty International …
Andrew Neil: Way back then?
David Davis: When I was 18. Oh, I’ll tell you what, yes, there is one I think and not so much changes of direction as belief that things are now possible where they weren’t before. The reform of the National Health Service, I think for most of my political career it has been impossible for the Conservative party to address it properly and the Labour party has never wanted to and I think that in the last few years the public appetite has changed.
Andrew Neil: I thought the pandemic kind of made the NHS untouchable.
David Davis: The aftermath of the pandemic has made the NHS subject to lots of criticism. A little village near me almost had a riot because they couldn’t get to see their GP. They are getting more and more people complaining now because they can’t get their cancer tests or their cancer treatment and so on and I think there is a great deal of that and that is coinciding with a huge change in technology, whether it’s gene technology or scanning technology and I don’t think the current NHS is well equipped to cope with that, so I think, I actually think for the first time in my political career that issue is capable of redress or being addressed properly and fixed. It will be difficult and it will be controversial and we may win and lose elections on it but that can be done.
Andrew Neil: I assume you think your ministerial career is over but not your backbench career?
David Davis: My backbench career is certainly not over; I intend to continue unless the good people of East Yorkshire decide I’m no use anymore. The ministerial career? It depends who’s in power, it depends what happens. If we suddenly had a change in government and the new leader said we need a Chancellor or we need a Home Secretary or we need a Foreign Secretary, I could probably do those but you know, the truth is when Boris got in, he and I had a meeting and he thought I’d come to see him about a court case I was tempering against the government and I’m afraid I said no, Boris, you’re going to lose the court case, let’s not talk about that! [Laughs] So, he threw everybody out the room and he said, what do you want? I said, what do you mean, what do I want? He said, well, if you hadn’t resigned, I wouldn’t have resigned and if we hadn’t have resigned, we’d still both be sitting here talking about the Withdrawal Agreement number 14 and a half. I said, yes, I know that, that’s why I resigned, to stop that process. So, what do you want? And I said, nothing you can give me, Boris, because he had either allocated the jobs that might have been interesting, at that time it turned out I had a personal family issue about a disabled child to sort out and I wasn’t interested in that point in time but you never know, you never know. I don’t write it off completely but I don’t lie awake at night or at any other time worrying about it because precisely what I said, you don’t need to be in government to make a big difference.
Andrew Neil: David Davis, thank you.
David Davis: My pleasure.
Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.
This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella. The Executive Producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers. Thanks for listening.