Friday, June 13, 2008

Is Davis making any sense at all?

First of all, let’s credit David Davis with really, passionately believing in his case. And let’s also credit him with a lot of chutzpah.

But that’s all I’m giving him. His reasons for prompting the byelection, explained in his statement yesterday and an article today, are incoherent.

On Wednesday, we witnessed a severe blow to liberal democracy in this country. On the one hand, Gordon Brown extended the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 42 days, sacrificing one of the most fundamental freedoms of every British citizen - the right not to be held in prolonged police detention without being told the charges against you.

This isn’t true. First of all, Brown didn’t do it; the House of Commons did. Secondly, and more significantly, there’s an inexplicable omission – that last bit should read:

…sacrificing one of the most fundamental freedoms of every British citizen - the right not to be held in prolonged police detention without being told the charges against you for longer than 28 days.

Davis and his party supported 28-day pre-charge detention. This is a matter of degree – about which, sure, he feels strongly – and not a matter of fundamental principle. The “severe blow” dealt to liberal democracy adds a fortnight, equalling the previous severe blow that Davis inflicted when he helped to raise the limit from 14 to 28 days.

He says that “this campaign will be about leading a national debate”, but that’s rubbish. It will be an entirely local decision on who represents the constituency, involving 1 in 646 of the national electorate. The result will certainly allow him to claim a mandate for the positions he was holding already, but it will have no ramifications for any other MP. If he wanted a national debate, he should have used his prominent front-bench position to get one going before the actual Commons vote took place.

He says that he feels “duty bound to take a personal stand” against “the steady, insidious and relentless erosion of our freedoms”. And he thinks himself unable to do this without contesting a byelection, campaigning “against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government”.

And if they [his voters] do send me back here it will be with a single, simple message: that the monstrosity of a law that we passed yesterday will not stand.

Not true. An individual MP, however peculiarly he may get himself re-elected, does not have the constitutional power to overturn legislation.

But his whole assumption is wrong: a single candidate in a byelection does not get to decide what issue the election will be ‘about’ or what the result will ‘mean’. All the election will determine is the identity of Haltemprice and Howden’s MP. It’s perfectly possible that the local electorate like Davis personally, back the Tories generally and support 42-day detention but think it’s far from the most important issue in their lives, so they’ll vote for him anyway.

He says “I am fighting this byelection as the Conservative candidate, but on vital national issues that transcend party politics”, but then adds that “Labour must put up a candidate to debate and defend their draconian track record”. No: you can either have a party political fight or try to “transcend” the fray, but not both. If he wants to focus just on this issue, then Kelvin Mackenzie will be all the opposition he needs. Indeed, a media whore like Mackenzie will surely attract more national publicity for Davis’s “debate” than any bog-standard Labour candidate.

This is the reality: often in politicians, deeply held principle marches hand in hand with inflated self-importance. A vote in Parliament that Davis cared about didn’t go the way he wanted. A party leadership that he’d never been much enamoured of wasn’t taking the issue as seriously as he’d have liked. He thinks he should be listened to more on this, so he’s thrown his toys out of the pram.

Let’s not help him pick them up. Labour would be mad to field a candidate in this pantomime ego-trip, and should say so immediately, not give Davis a weekend to spin the refusal as cowardice. Let him mudwrestle with Mackenzie, and perhaps someone or other – maybe a local Lib Dem disgruntled at Clegg’s playing along with the charade – will be shrewd enough to stand as an independent, opposing Davis’s illiberal support for 28-day detention. Then Davis can slink back into Parliament and carve out whatever niche he can, trying to face up to the fact that his new mandate won’t – on his own terms – cover any positions he might take on tax, health, education, Europe, defence, welfare, transport, housing, the environment, immigration and all other policy areas.


Anonymous said...

Ah, that was the post I wanted to read on this debacle.


Anonymous said...

You nailed it.

Anonymous said...

Spot on, mate. If someone stands in opposition to Davis on his support for the 28 day bill, then they can have all the loose change I have on me right now (£2.67, for the record). It's too late in the day for Davis to suddenly find his principles - if someone like Tony Benn had made the stand Davis had, I think we'd be trying to appoint him king, let alone an MP.