The breaking news lunchtime in the UK [Thursday 12th June 2008] was as dramatic as it was unexpected. David Davis announced his resignation as MP (and therefore as a leading member of The Shadow Cabinet). That would be news enough. Such a resignation suggests previously undisclosed personal reasons, or some scandal brewing.
But the story that emerged was even more astonishing.
The Midday News
I caught the news around midday, via a soundless news feed above a bustling coffee-shop. Pictures of Mr Davis and the feed appeared, with the running text below stating that he was resigning to oppose the impact of the Government’s policies on individual freedoms. Wow!
Then more images, of Mr Cameron in supporting role. The text reported that he fully endorsed the actions of his erstwhile shadow Home Secretary.
Brilliant, Barmy, Bizarre?
My initial reaction was one of astonishment, and I’ve reproduced here to the notes I scribbled at the time
Why? The Government’s popularity has never been lower. The next election is for the Conservatives to lose. Yesterday’s Pyrrhic victory in the 42 day detention vote seems only to have added future problems for Gordon Brown. Prospects over the medium-term are unlikely to get better.
What’s happening? One possibility is that David Davis has had an impulse to seize the moment, grasp an opportunity, a tide in the affairs of men. Possible but unlikely.
More likely, (but still bizarre) is that it is part of a fall-back plan of what would the Opposition do, if they lost the vote yesterday. It’s been suggested that David Davis has been more emotionally committed to opposing the 42-day proposals than his leader. Might a strategic discussion had taken place with Davis exclaiming: ‘We most oppose it. I feel strongly enough to resign over this”? Or something like that.
If that happened, I’m still baffled how the argument won the day over the view of more cautious souls arguing there was no need to rush the Government into defeat, just let it continue on its blunder-prone way. As it is, the Conservative Captains Courageous have engaged on an unexpected option.
A Risky Shift
[Thirty minutes later, still watching the mute screen] It took Nick Clegg all of a couple hours to make his mind up. His party would not take part in the proposed bye-election. Now that’s easier to call. Almost a win-win. Why risk being accused of wasting the electorate’s time and money when a seat from the sidelines will be more comfortable and risk-free.
So it’s over to Gordon. At least he has a chance to join battle outside Westminster, with a few strong weapons in his armoury. If David intends to fight with the sword of truth in defense of individual freedom, Gordon has (for the moment) the encouragement of popular support. It will be a fascinating battle.
A Few Hours Later
I reconnected with my PC to learn of the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the story. Nick Robinson has got away to a flier with an insightful posting, and a monster number of intense comments. He argued that
This resignation is quite extraordinary and without precedent that I can think of in British politics… David Cameron has lost control of his strategy. This was not his decision. He was not asked for his agreement. He was informed late last night by David Davis that he was going to do this come what may. That he was going to resign and trigger this campaign. This is not a campaign that Mr Cameron wants, it is not part of his strategy and indeed, I am told by senior Tories who know Mr Cameron well, that this was David Davis’ personal decision and will be his personal campaign
By mid-afternoon David Davis had confirmed that he had contacted Nick Clegg after the vote last night, so that the Lib Dem reaction while swift, was not as speedy as I suspected.
[David Davis] told reporters outside the House of Commons he believed his move was a “noble endeavour” to stop the erosion of British civil liberties. He is one of the best-known opposition MPs and his resignation came as a complete surprise in Westminster. He told reporters outside the Commons: “I will argue in this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government.”
The great number of comments to Nick Robinson’s post split in as curious a way as everything else about this episode. The majority were vehemently behind David Davis, and more than a bit hostile to Robinson. And most of the other comments were unprintable, (another surprise) and held up for clarification or rejection after moderation.
Brave Words and their Consequences
I rather accept the view that Mr Davis is taking a principled stand. However, I couldn’t help thinking of another speech some while ago, which ran along similar rousing lines:
“If it falls to me to start a fight …with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”
That was Jonathan Aitken, who later was found severely wanting. Brave words, but it does put a lot of pressure on the hero to maintain the deeply-principled standards for which he has chosen to fight.