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

by Stephen Tall on August 31, 2014

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.