David Davis: Why I think Clegg called it right (just about)

Who’d be leader of a political party?

For the last few days, debate has been raging in Lib Dem circles about the decision of Nick Clegg not to stand a Liberal Democrat candidate against David Davis in the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election.

For some party members, Nick’s decision is utterly mystifying, and they have a number of pretty compelling arguments at their disposal:

* David Davis is no liberal;
* Haltemprice and Howden is a fairly marginal seat and it’s suicidal not to compete there;
* by not standing we risk being frozen out of the media air-war;
* we should not cede the civil liberties argument to Tories, no matter how maverick they are;
* the decision should have been left to the local party; and
* we must always give the electorate the choice of voting for a Liberal Democrat.

Each one of these is powerful; cumulatively they almost win the argument. Almost. Against them – or, perhaps more accurately, alongside them – can be placed the following counter-arguments, a potent mix of principle and tactics:

* David Davis might not have stood down unless he had been assured the Lib Dems would not contest his seat;
* his resignation is a good outcome for the Lib Dems tactically – because it has left the Tories shell-shocked; and in principle – because it has helped expose the flimsiness of the Tories’ opposition to 42 days;
* if he had stood down and the Lib Dems had announced the party would contest his election, we would (i) be excoriated by most of the media for putting petty tribalism ahead of policy principle; (ii) be slammed by a large section of the electorate for the same reason: (iii) lose because of a combination of (i) and (ii);
* in which case the party would have spent a huge amount of goodwill among the non-partisan liberal public which applauds Mr Davis’s action (and may well vote Lib Dem at the next general election), and face the prospect of a humiliating drubbing in a constituency which was one of our top targets in 2005.

Political leadership is about being comfortable taking the important decisions, having self-belief in your own judgement, and being prepared to take risks at the right time. Paddy had it in buckets (and perhaps to excess). Charles’s political antennae were remarkably acute (but he was let down by other frailties). Ming was too obviously plagued by self-doubt (at least towards the end).

Nick is having a baptism of fire. First, by refusing to support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty: personally, I think he was wrong… but, then again, no candidate stood for the party leadership offering an alternative. And now, secondly, with David Davis’s resignation, an event unprecedented in recent political history: the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister as an MP to force a by-election on a single issue on which the two opposition parties agree.

On balance, I think Nick made the right call. Or, to be more precise, the least worst call available to him.

Had Nick made the opposite decision – and refused to give the Lib Dems’ tacit backing – it’s unlikely Mr Davis would have resigned; and I’m not sure that would have been any more to the Lib Dems’ advantage. If Mr Davis had called Nick’s bluff, and resigned anyway, the prospect would be far worse for the party: pilloried by many we would prefer to call our friends, and facing an almost certain defeat in the process.

This was a tough call for a still-inexperienced leader to make. (And I hope Nick first discussed it carefully with Chris Huhne, both as Mr Davis’s shadow and a famously shrewd tactician). There was no easy or universally popular option. To suggest otherwise is seriously to underestimate the difficulty of leading a political party.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “Helped expose the flimsiness of Conservative opposition to 42 days”. I watched the debate. DD gave one of the most statesmanlike performances, in arguing the case against 42 days, which has been seen in Parliament for a very long time. He won the argument by a distance. Let us not forget that it was only the most outrageous amount of arm-twisting and the bribing of a small party, most of whom KNOW that internment without trial is counter-productive, that got this Bill through the Commons.
    The Bill will almost certainly fall in the Lords, and invoking the Parliament Act on such an issue would probably bring the Labour dissidents out in force. GB might even be forced into making the LibDems an offer they can’t refuse to get the Bill through!. Bearing in mind that there is every liklihood that the LibDems will get hammered at the next GE, it is probably prudent of Clegg that he has withdrawn from the fray.

  • Ian Stewart 17th Jun '08 - 8:24am

    atropos, isn’t the point that the Cons have adopted this position as a tactic rather than from the point of principle? The action of Davis is, IMHO, a message to Dave & George not to backtrack. The Con position is flakey…….on this Davis joins us in a principled, anti-authoritarian position.

  • I have been a spear carrier for the Tories for a very long time. There has always been within the Party a large number who look upon the Hang’em and Flog’em Battalion (the Blue Rinse Brigade) with bemusement, and I feel it over-simplifying to lump all conservatives into this caricature. My type of Tory views authoritarian measures not limited by time or space with grave disquiet. I was not in favour of internment without trial in NI (I served there in the 70’s) for the mainly pragmatic reason that the move was clearly counter-productive. With age comes wisdom, and I now oppose it as much on natural justice grounds as operational grounds. I do agree with you that, while DC’s preference for Fabian tactics have previously been perfectly understandable, he should now feel in a strong enough position to define what his version of Conservatism stands for. I, of course would say that The Libdems have joined DD in a principled, anti-authoritarian position. It’s a shame that the Libdems did not follow the same principled logic when reneging on their manifesto promise for a referendum on Lisbon

  • Politics is about more than getting the political football exactly where you want it, you also have to set appropriate boundaries where that football can go. Labour is changing what is acceptable in democratic politics to include arrest without charge, trial or evidence, and it is absolutely right that we should be backing David Davies on this.

  • Atropos – we never promised a referendum on Lisbon.

  • “Labour is changing what is acceptable in democratic politics to include arrest without charge, trial or evidence, and it is absolutely right that we should be backing David Davies on this.”

    But David Davis supports detention without charge for 28 days (as does Chris Huhne). Where is the point of principle?

  • Hywel Morgan 17th Jun '08 - 9:53am

    “It has been noted elsewhere that because of the way the votes on extending detention without charge were structured, those who were against 90 days were forced to support 28 for fear of getting 90 instead.”

    But did we table anything proposing a reduction second time around – when there was an opportunity to do so.

  • I think we need to separate the idea of acting on principle from Davis’s actions. If he was acting on principle he wouldn’t have needed to first check with Nick Clegg that the party wouldn’t oppose him.

    It’s purely a cynical tactical exercise by Davis, in his battle to finally win the Tory leadership. Hence the cold water cascaded on his announcement by Cameron.

  • “It has been noted elsewhere that because of the way the votes on extending detention without charge were structured, those who were against 90 days were forced to support 28 for fear of getting 90 instead.”

    If you’ve seen those other discussions, surely you must be aware that Chris Huhne has said he believes 28 days is justified and that he’s “very happy” with it. I heard Davis say something similar on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday.

    And frankly I’m amazed that the reaction of Liberal Democrats, faced with such statements, is to try to excuse them.

  • passing tory 17th Jun '08 - 10:02am

    wit and wisdom [sic], you seem to be saying that because something was done wrong in the past that you should just plough on doing it that way. Not a very progressive point fo view, is it?

    In fact, I think the context in pre-1990 Europe was very different, and the balance of argument in terms of the EEC/EU should be taken into account re 1985 and 1973.

    There was an extremely good case for a referendum on Maastricht. Were you lobbying for one at the time?

    There is one more point that really sbould be made. I hear all the time that the Lib Dems are going to cosy up to Europe to change it from within, yet I don’t see much evidence of this change. I will possit that other parties were hoping for something similar and it is only now that it is becoming really clear that change from within isn’t going to work; the EU needs its butt kicked from without. The Lib Dems just don’t seem to have cottoned on to this though (although there have been mutterings on this board over the last few days, so maybe the penny is starting to drop).

  • Hywel Morgan 17th Jun '08 - 10:19am

    “There was an extremely good case for a referendum on Maastricht. Were you lobbying for one at the time?”

    The Lib Dems proposed a referendum on Maastricht – it was voted down by the Major government and the Labour party IIRC.

  • Dane – the Lisbon Treaty is not the same document as the Connstitutional Treaty. I thought that was a given. Show me precisely how it is the same document.

  • “Dane – the Lisbon Treaty is not the same document as the Connstitutional Treaty. I thought that was a given.”

    Well, you’re wrong. Just compare the two documents, and you should be able to spot the similarities.

  • That Davis has brought the issue of executive detention for 42 days out into the open and made it a topic of everyday debate is very much to be welcomed, whatever his motives might be.

    What does bother me is the prominence now given to this one issue in relation to other threats to our liberties that have the potential to harm far more people (eg, ID cards, satellite surveillance of motor vehicles, a national DNA database, curfews, the extension of educational conscription to the age of 18, more draconian liquor laws, etc).

    A little noticed assault on our liberties is currently under consideration by the Salmond administration in Edinburgh. And that is the proposal to raise the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in shops to 21. Why no outrcy from Liberty, or from Lib Dem leaders?

    I have always considered Salmond a cocky little poseur with a nasty side to him. Well, he proves himself far worse. He is a social authoritarian populist quite happy to persecute an unpopular minority to get votes. The only people Salmond listens to appear to be Donald Trump and Brian Souter. Maybe it is they who told him to do this.

  • Recreational drugs will never be harmless (otherwise they wouldn’t be drugs), but they would be a good deal less harmful if their manufacture and supply was taken out of the hands of organised crime and regulated by the state.

    The so-called “war on drugs” is, of course, unwinnable, as those directing it know. It continues to be waged because it is in the interests of elites that this should be so.

    There cannot be a serious public debate about drugs in this country, because as soon as someone tries to start one, he/she is immediately drowned out in a cascade of emotionally charged humbug about “protecting” young people.

  • Shami Chakrabarti is demanding an apology (on behalf of herself and Mrs Davis) for that appalling nonsense Andy Burnham came out with, about how civil liberties campaigners had been “seduced” by David Davis, and how she in particular had had “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” with him:

    In response, he squirms a bit and claims this interpretation of his words had never crossed his mind. Grounds for a poll about whether he’s dishonest or plain stupid, perhaps?

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