When David Davis, the shadow home secretary, announced his resignation as an MP on 12 June – in order to fight a by-election for his own seat on an issue about which he was in total agreement with his party’s line, on which in fact he was his party’s line – the media nearly choked with delight. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, called the resignation ‘without precedent’, and rubbed his hands at the thought of the Tory divisions that must surely lie beneath; only to be told by eager citizen bloggers that there were clear precedents – George Lansbury in 1912, Enoch Powell in 1958 – and that Davis was an incarnation of that forgotten thing: the politician with principles, a man standing up for his beliefs. Never mind that, as it transpired, he would be standing up against Miss Great Britain, campaigning on behalf of ‘beautiful people’; a person known as Mad Cow-Girl, campaigning on behalf of the wearers of ridiculous costumes; and an ex-management consultant called Neil, who is running as David.
Lansbury resigned because he, unlike his party, believed in women’s suffrage; Powell resigned because he, unlike his party, believed government spending was too high. The question of whether or not David Davis believes in something has divided the opinion-mongers, with Westminster hacks largely on the side of cynicism and campaigners and columnists largely of the view that his motives are pure if quixotic. But this isn’t as interesting as the fact that his resignation is indeed unprecedented in British parliamentary politics, in being the act of a person who agrees with his party’s line. If a Labour MP had done the forgotten thing and resigned because he or she could not in good conscience continue to be a member of a government that wanted to legislate for the detention of terrorist suspects for six weeks without charge, then that would have been something to celebrate. It would also, incidentally, have forestalled the current hand-wringing of liberal commentators – check out liberalconspiracy.org – who believe that Muslims shouldn’t arbitrarily be incarcerated merely on the suspicion of involvement in terrorism but who can’t square it with their consciences to support a man who agrees that 42 days is too many but is also in favour of the death penalty (by ‘the most humane method possible, such as lethal injection’).
So why resign when you have your boss’s backing? Because a boss isn’t enough when you can appeal directly to the hearts of a country. Davis is seeking support from ‘across the political divide’ on issues ‘that transcend party politics’. His spokespeople have promised an ‘Obama-like’ campaign, to which end they have set him up on Facebook (he has 509 friends at the time of writing, racing towards Obama’s total of 1,019,806) and built him a swanky new website (daviddavisforfreedom.com) that has yet to be updated, other than the copyright bit, which upset savvy bloggers not so much for its questionable grammar – ‘Please note that the “look” and “feel” of David Davis and the manner in which the site functions and is implemented are Promoted by Duncan Gilmore on behalf of David Davis trademarks’ – as for its fierce and un-spirit-of-the-internet line on ownership: ‘In the graphical area, this includes David Davis’s colour combinations, button shapes, layout and all other graphical elements.’ Notwithstanding his graphical elements, Davis has indeed won the backing of self-described civil libertarians, including the usefully telegenic Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, who threatened to sue Labour’s culture secretary over his suggestion that she shouldn’t be getting into bed (politically speaking) with a right-winger like Davis.
Labour has announced that the Haltemprice and Howden by-election will be a ‘farce’. It is one already, though not the sort they had in mind. For a very brief period they considered fielding a candidate, it being less obvious to them than it should have been that this would mean suffering one of the most embarrassing defeats in British electoral history. They wanted someone with ‘personal experience of terror’ to put the government’s case, such as the Glasgow ‘folk hero’ John Smeaton, who wrestled a burning suicide bomber to the ground (nobody got round to asking Smeaton if he had a view on the matter). But what’s really farcical about the situation isn’t that Davis is about to fight a one-man crusade against himself. The David Davis he is standing as, it turns out, is also the Gordon Brown of October 2007, who – after ‘reaching out’ across the ideological divide and seeking a ‘government that uses all the talents’ – gave a speech to the University of Westminster to set out his stall. ‘I want to talk today about liberty,’ he said. Not just any kind of liberty. ‘From the time of Magna Carta … there has been a British tradition of liberty – what one writer has called our “gift to the world”.’ Davis took possession of the same ‘gift’ in his resignation speech, as he too invoked Magna Carta and the ‘800 year’ history of British freedom. The trouble with British freedom, whoever it’s claimed by, is that it doesn’t apply to those who aren’t quite as British as others. Davis’s would-be appeal rests on his ability to persuade people in his folk-hero way that it’s ‘us’ that the government is out to snoop on, that our privacy is being invaded and our rights removed. Brown could so easily put him right.