In your face

David Davis's attack on cronyism is a punch thrown at Downing Street's strategy and style
February 22, 2012

David Davis’s Prospect article on “crony capitalism” is his boldest and broadest attack on David Cameron’s approach to Conservatism since the two men fought over the party leadership in 2005. This, the latest in his line of attacks on successive Tory leaders since 1997, carries weight because Davis remains a focal point for dissent, and not just in the traditional Conservative right wing that is his base.

Davis, a “big beast” of British politics, has always been a more complicated Conservative than he at first appears. True, the bulky bruiser with a broken nose and a penchant for rock-climbing is a hardliner who advocates capital punishment, rejects the theory of man-made global warming and seeks disengagement from the EU.

He is also a constitutional expert and civil libertarian, an opponent of ID cards who has teamed up with Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, and Tony Benn to oppose what he calls the “illusory pursuit of an unobtainable security.”

In 2008, Davis was a lone front-bench voice against the extension of police powers—proposed by Labour, and backed by Cameron—in the wake of the 2005 terrorist attacks on London. Davis resigned as shadow home secretary and fought a by-election in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency on the issue of civil liberties, which he won. Allies warned him against sacrificing a future cabinet post, but Davis was sure of himself. After a politician who was also an old friend criticised his resignation on TV, Davis sent him a text message making clear their friendship was over.

It is this streak of confident rebelliousness that explains Davis’s challenge to Cameron. Like his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, Davis is an outsider in a party whose upper ranks are still full of the privately educated, born into comparative affluence. Brought up by a single mother on a council estate in Tooting, Davis’s favourite Tory policy was Thatcher’s “right to buy,” which allowed many poorer people to own their homes.

Davis, who enjoys late-night plotting over a whisky, rebelled against William Hague’s leadership, frequently eclipsing the leader’s attacks on Labour with his own as chairman of the public accounts committee. Now, in Prospect, Davis has outlined a critique of Cameron’s approach to business, banking and capitalism.

Rank and file Tories will agree with his championing of small businesses ahead of corporations and multinationals. They may appreciate his blunt dismissal of government fears of upsetting Stephen Hester by withholding his £1m bonus.

That said, there are few senior Tories who would dare to accuse Cameron openly of being “far too close” to big businessmen, let alone of “shamelessly courting” Rupert Murdoch. There are fewer still who would extend the attack to the charge that government departments have been too cosy with suppliers and contacts.

Many MPs who feel alienated by what they see as Cameron’s “closed door” policy making, will read more into the cronyism charge. They may feel it also applies to the way that Cameron consults only a few ministers and advisers on party direction. As his broken nose testifies, David Davis has never been one to pull his punches.

Read David Davis's attack on "crony capitalism" here