September 16, 2005

Does David Willetts endorsement of David Davis mark a decisive moment in the Conservative leadership campaign?

Posted by Watlington

In the early stages of the Tory leadership contest, Watlington urged David Davis - if he was serious about being the next leader of the Tory Party and then winning a general election - to bring David Willetts on board as a key member of his leadership team. As Watlington wrote at the time, a Davis-Willetts partnership would have the following benefits (Watlington, The Real Tory Contest: who will have the senior positions in the next shadow cabinet?, 27th June 2005):

Davis would supply the ruthlessness and ambition needed to be leader, whilst Mr Willetts would provide the intellectual framework and the story of compassionate conservatism for the next election. Bringing a thoughtful moderniser on board like Mr Willetts would show the Conservative Party that Davis can attract the centre ground (or common ground as he prefers to call it), without kow-towing to the Notting Hill set. There would be a real chance that we would have a Tory leadership based on merit and intellect rather than one based on privilege and patronage.
Now that David Willetts has withdrawn as a leadership candidate, and endorses David Davis, Watlington assesses if this marks a decisive turning point in the campaign. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The decision by Mr Willetts to back David Davis has blown the Tory leadership contest wide open at a time when it looked like Ken Clarke was making all the running.

To bring a thoughtful and compassionate Conservative on board like Mr Willetts, shows Mr Davis's consummate political skills. At a stroke, Mr Davis has shown that he can reach out to all sections of the Conservative Party (in that he has shown his support base is not solely form the right), that he can attract the leading exponent of compassionate conservatism and that he knows that in order to be Prime Minister, he needs to build a broad coalition within the party.

Most important of all, the enemies of Mr Davis have taken pleasure in tagging him as Mr Nasty. With the genial Mr Willetts on board (coupled with nice Damian Green and others), it is Mr Davis who can present himself as "no more Mr Nasty".

But the decision by Mr Willetts is known not to have been an easy one. Many people would have thought that his natural home was with the Notting Hill metropolitans. It is understood that Mr Willetts faced considerable pressure from the Cameron team to back their man and it is likely that Mr Willetts will be the subject of accusations of betrayal.

The truth is that Mr Willetts is a much more complex figure than his "two brains" portrayal would suggest. He understands both the relevance of libertarianism and authoritarianism to Conservative thought and is as suspicious of the Notting Hill Set as he is wary of the Clarkeite big government interventionists.

He realized that the one way to stop the Ken Clarke bandwagon and the possibility of the party splitting asunder, was to strengthen the forces of Conservatism and back the one person that can stop Mr Clarke in his tracks. Mr Willetts is thought to have concerns that were Mr Cameron to be elected as Leader, this would reinforce the Tory image problem, namely that the party is based around patronage and privilege rather than aspiration and merit.

One further ramification of Mr Willetts decision is to show how the "modernising" forces have split asunder since the departure of Mr Portillo from Parliament.

Previously, the modernizers presented a cohesive force within the party, now they are fragmented and unwieldy. Whilst John Bercow is backing Ken Clarke, Nick Gibb announced that he was backing Mr Willetts (as a leadership candidate). Gary Streeter (who joined forces with Mr Gibb earlier in the Summer) is backing Liam Fox with Damian Green (and now Mr Willetts) backing David Davis.

Even Mr Portillo has backed Ken Clarke asking why David Cameron has stood for leadership after only four years in Parliament with little relevant experience. Nick Boles, the leading modernizer from the think thank Policy Exchange, initially flirted with Mr Davis, but is thought to have come back into the Cameron camp out of loyalty.

This has probably been Mr Davis's best week in the leadership campaign so far. He has made his best speech, talking about compassionate conservatism and opportunity (indeed, Mr Davis used "Willettsian phraseology" talking about a "stronger society and a strong economy") and he has brought one of the party's biggest hitters on board.

He has begun to move his campaign from the cautious safety first of the past few weeks to one which is more courageous - witness Mr Davis's criticism (at last) of the attempts to stifle party democracy. Mr Davis also needs to do everything possible to rebuild bridges with Liam Fox so as not to split the right of the party. He needs some careful massaging of the Cornerstone group of MPs, a number of whom need to be convinced that Davis will speak up for - at least some - traditional values. Mr Fox has clearly pitched his campaign at these most traditionalist of rightist MPs. Mr Davis can ill afford to ignore them completely.

All in all, Mr Davis is the one person that can stop Mr Clarke. He has the opportunity and is at last making the most of it. All that remains is for Mr Davis to really set out his political credo of aspiration and merit in a manner which is both thoughtful and passionate.

The next few weeks will be very interesting indeed.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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