What if… David Davis had won the Tory leadership contest in 2005?

Cameron and DavisWhat-ifs are, as Peter Snow would say, just a bit of fun: a counter-factual parlour game for historians. It is impossible to know exactly how one event ricocheting off in a different direction would have altered the subsequent reality.

This one does genuinely intrigue me, though: What if David Davis had won the Tory leadership contest in 2005, rather than David Cameron? Davis did, after all, begin as favourite. His disastrous 2005 party conference – a dud photo-op and a lacklustre speech – coupled with David “let sunshine win the day” Cameron’s triumph meant his second leadership attempt sank without trace. He was trounced 68%-32% in the all-member ballot that followed.

But what if he’d won? Would David Davis have been a more effective leader of the Tories than David Cameron has turned out to be?

The case for is simply stated. Davis had the better back story. Raised on a council estate in Tooting, a grammar school boy who failed his A-levels and had to work extra shifts to earn the money to re-take them to get into university, a successful career in business, not elected to Parliament until he was 38: it’s a school-of-hard-knocks-made-good CV that the gilded Cameron would give his Bullingdon Club coat-tails to be able to boast.

Davis was the more authentically Thatcherite candidate: non-establishment, economically dry, socially conservative and, like Her, also not afraid to be pragmatic on Europe (he made enemies on the Right as a whip for the Major government during the Maastricht Treaty travails; and he, wisely, refused to commit the Tories to pulling out of the centre-right EPP group in the European parliament – a foolish campaign pledge made by a desperate Cameron which has bedevilled him ever since).

It is hard to imagine a Davis-led Tory party promising to focus “not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing” or agreeing to match Labour spending plans in government or to introduce same-sex marriage within Coalition. In short, he would (his attachment to civil liberties notwithstanding) have acted like a traditional Conservative leader, keeping party members happy, while at the same time presenting himself to the voters as an ordinary, grounded guy, the voice of common sense. Tough, not a toff. There would have been much less space on the right for Nigel Farage’s so-called “People’s Army” of Ukip.

The case against can be stated more briefly. There is a reason David Davis lost the leadership: his campaign failed to fire. He fell at, pretty much, the first hurdle. What hope, then, would he have had against Labour’s fighting machine? Would he have even attempted to broaden the Tory Party’s appeal as Cameron did, initially with huge success? Let’s not forget, after all, the Tories were polling up to 45% just a year before the 2010 election. Wouldn’t Davis have simply ended up as the steady-as-she-goes, Michael Howard-style leader: shoring up the base, failing to win converts? And then there’s his flaky personality: that bizarre resignation with which, seemingly on a whim, he ended his front-line political career.

Which way would it have gone? Would Davis’s un-flashy approach have attracted a public tired of Blair’s bling? Or would that USP have been detonated by Gordon Brown’s accession, with Davis leading the Tories to a fourth defeat in the 2007 election-that-was? And what if Brown had flunked that decision even in this alternative history: would Davis have fared better than Cameron in 2010? And, if he hadn’t, how likely would it have been that he would have made a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to join a coalition government?

That’s the joy of what-ifs: there are no answers, only questions.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Dawson 31st Aug '14 - 9:53am

    Something rather similar happened to Malcolm Bruce’s leadership bid when Charles Kennedy won.

    In this era of 24 hour news media politics, political Parties are dominated so easily by the idea of marketing principle-lite, experinece-liye pre-packaged ‘quick win’ solutions. This, of course does include the Labour Party in Britain whose members actually chose David ‘the wrong Miliband’ – it was the strange maths of their electoral college which picked Ed. I can knock Ed with the rest of them, and he is out of the same ‘pod’ as his brother but he does at least have a few core beliefs hidden away somewhere other than the belief in his own judgment .

  • A more fun what if is what if Chris Huhne had won? Which he would if the Royal Mail had been a bit more efficient.

  • My guess is that Davis would have faired about the same as Cameron in 2010, but any coalition agreement would have taken longer, been looser and collapsed. But I suspect Davis would now be Prime minister in a majority government because he would have picked better people for his cabinet in the first place. and is less easy to characterise as out of touch. He would have been a better more cautious leader for the Tories but not as socially progressive. On the one hand we wouldn’t have Gay Marriage, but on the other UKIP would be less of a force.

  • Richard Dean 31st Aug '14 - 3:43pm

    Retrospective What-ifs are ways of losing touch with reality!

  • I dislike ‘ifs’ as they are an endless black-hole. My own idea of logic dedicates to me that the ‘Televised debates’ and their resultant ‘cleggmania’ would not have occurred, meaning that we would have received a smaller share of the votes, but probably also got more seats in Westminster.

    This would have resulted in a stronger negotiating hand during the coalition agreement and more freedom for us during the Coalition years, as well as a much weaker feeling of betrayal following tuition fees and other such things.

    How all of this would look today, though, I cannot say considering how many other variables would have changed due to this slight shift in the picture the public had in its mind at the foundation of the coalition.

  • David Allen 1st Sep '14 - 12:24pm

    “what if Chris Huhne had won? Which he would if the Royal Mail had been a bit more efficient.”

    That seems to be the established version of events, but it’s obviously just not true.

    We are told that Clegg won by a margin of 511 out of over 41,000 votes, and that a batch of 1300 late votes then came in. We are told that an unofficial check on the late votes showed that they would have handed the election to Huhne if they had arrived on time. To do that, the late votes would have had to split at least as unevenly as 394 Clegg to 906 Huhne. That’s a ratio of 70% to 30%, in a contest which was otherwise almost exactly 50/50. Ever tried tossing 1000 coins, and seeing how often they come down with 700 heads? The odds are about ten-to-the-power-of-37 against that happening!


    This leaves us with two possibilities:

    (1). The unofficial check was at best appallingly sloppy, at worst deliberately dishonest. Somebody decided to report something which can’t possibly have been true, if the late votes were something like a reasonably random sample of all the votes. This sounds like skullduggery, though quite who might have done it, and what they might have been trying to achieve by it, is not at all clear.

    (2). The unofficial check was reasonably well done, and the “rejected for lateness” votes checked really were tremendously skewed in favour of Huhne. Why could that be?

    (A). Because something seismic happened, such as Clegg being caught in the act of blowing up the House of Commons, which persuaded all the last-minute voters to go for Huhne. Except that no such thing happened.

    (B). Somebody intercepted some of the voting papers and held back some of the ones they didn’t like.

    I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but, it’s not a nice story, is it?

  • @David Allen: Why do you presume that the voting was randomly distributed? Or that the delay on votes was randomly distributed? It’s quite plausible, likely even, that the Huhne and Clegg votes were not evenly distributed through the country and it’s also quite plausible that votes from particularly parts of the country might experience similar delays.

    There doesn’t have to have been either incompetence or skullduggery for the story to be true.

  • David Allen 1st Sep '14 - 3:57pm

    Jack, I do not argue that voting would have been as perfectly random as coin-tossing. It is plausible that, with the national vote split 50/50, there might have been specific regions in which the split was, say, 60/40 or 40/60 – though I’m not aware that either candidate had any particular region of stronger support . I suppose 70/30 might be plausible in Sheffield Hallam, and 30/70 in Eastleigh, but it seems pretty unlikely anywhere else.

    However, to produce a 70/30 split within a specific “late” group of votes, something else very abnormal has to happen. That is, if there is one small geographic region which is 30/70 in favour of Huhne, then ALL the late votes have to be drawn from that region alone. Is that plausible? Well, balloting opened on 21st November with a stated deadline for return of 15th December. So that’s 24 days to get the ballot paper back. Even from the Western Isles, it doesn’t take anything like that long. So, the late votes are highly unlikely to have been severely regionally biased. Instead, they will have come from people who had difficulty making a decision, and from people who just aren’t well organised.

    When “undecideds” finally vote, they generally split around 50/50, or they wouldn’t have been undecided in the first place. The last Hustings was on 27th November. Nothing happened which might have caused a last-minute surge for Huhne.

    It doesn’t add up without assuming incompetence or skullduggery.


  • Dave G Fawcett 1st Sep '14 - 8:22pm

    What if…….? What if Chris Huhne had been elected party leader instead of Nick. Howe much would have changed in the long term. Nick would probably have ended up as leader, almost by default, when Chris had to resign to fight the charges against him.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Sep '14 - 3:43pm

    A couple of points. Ed Milliband was not, in my opinion, the wrong Milliband. His elder brother was loved by the media, but in several years as a cabinet minister he had failed to do anything of consequence except, possibly, turn a blind eye to torture. Given a chance to reform local government finance, he chickened out. His younger brother at least had a record as Energy Secretary of standing up on environmental issues to an unsympathetic Gordon Brown. Milliband Major lost not only because his brother was much preferred by the unions, but because he finished only a whisker ahead of his brother among the MPs and because he let himself be painted as the Blairite candidate. His lack of political sense is shown by his supreme confidence that he had won on the night. What council candidate, ahead by a small margin in the polls with his lead steadily reducing, would go to the count without considering he might have lost?

    Now about what ifs. I don’t object to them at all. As a History graduate, I don’t think History could do without them. How else can we consider the importance of what did happen, an unavoidable question as History is a SELECTIVE account of the past, selecting what we consider important? Was the allied victory in the Second World War important? Of course. But that judgment is based on assuming that if the Fascists had won, various appalling things would have happened. In other words, to judge that the victory was important, we have to pursue a what if of allied defeat. Was Nick Clegg’s election as Liberal Democrat leader important? Not so easy, but again any answer depends on asking ourselves, “What if he had lost?” It’s speculative, yes, but History is not Mathematics.

  • Davis isn’t a ‘leader’. I suspect he’s having much more fun as a contrarian – which is good, as he often (though not always) talks a lot of sense.

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