Sir David Davis exclusively interviews with The Telegraph on Prime Minister Johnson


As published by The Telegraph:

David Davis was walking to the House of Commons on Wednesday morning when he finally decided that enough was enough.

With one of the most famous quotes in parliamentary history ringing in his ears, he took his seat on the back benches, unsure whether he would be called upon by the Speaker to ask Boris Johnson a question.

But after catching Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s eye, the former Brexit secretary seized the moment and went for the jugular.

He started out by explaining how he had spent “weeks and months defending the Prime Minister” and reminding constituents of his successes in delivering Brexit and the vaccine rollout.

But then came the killer blow from the former territorial SAS soldier.

“But I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. So I’ll remind him of a quotation altogether too familiar to him – of Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain – ‘You have sat there too long, for all you have done. In the name of God, go!'”

Coming after nearly a dozen of Mr Johnson’s own “Red Wall” MPs submitted letters of no confidence as part of a “pork pie plot” to oust him, and Christian Wakeford, the Tory MP for Bury South, defected to Labour, it was arguably the last thing the Prime Minister needed.

But as we speak in Mr Davis’s Commons office less than an hour after his dramatic intervention, the Tory “grey hair”, 73, who was first elected in 1987, appears unapologetic.

“I’ve just made myself the most unpopular person in the Tory party,” concedes the MP for Haltemprice and Howden. “Well, the second most unpopular. But I’ve gone from thinking maybe we can rescue it to maybe we just have to accelerate it and get it done.”

It soon becomes apparent that masked Mr Johnson’s excruciating 14-minute TV interview on Tuesday, in which he insisted “nobody told me” that a gathering in the Downing Street garden during the May 2020 lockdown was against the rules, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I don’t know why he did that interview. It wasn’t really a mea culpa – it was somebody else’s culpa. If he really meant ‘let’s wait for the outcome of the Sue Gray inquiry’, why was he out giving interviews?

“What he essentially said was ‘it’s not my fault’, undermining his apology from last week. Nobody told me what my rules were? It sounds pompous. But there’s a moral requirement of leadership. If you make a mistake, you’ve got to accept the blame, not try to blame somebody else.

“He’s delivered Brexit, he’s got some good outcomes on vaccines and other things. But he’s not met the leadership criteria I care about, which is that he takes responsibility for what he does – and until he does that, I don’t think he can fix it. Maybe he will. Maybe for the next two weeks we’ll see a completely different approach.”

But does Mr Davis think his fellow Brexiteer can redeem himself? “No,” he sighs. “I see no sign of him fixing it.”

The former leadership contender, who has served under every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, adds: “I was reminded of history on Tuesday, the number of people saying to me: ‘Oh Christ, what are we going to do?’ Not just the 2019 intake but also older hands, ex-Cabinet ministers and so on asking what the hell are we going to do?

“The party is going to have to make a decision or we face dying a death of 1,000 cuts. We’ll have Sue Gray, and he [Mr Johnson] will have to fire some people and that’s going to look like shifting the blame so that won’t go down well. Then we’ll have to go through people being hit by higher energy bills and then having to pay more in National Insurance.

“Those are going to be crises in their own right – and then there will be other crises because of the disorganisation at Number 10. And every single time we have a crisis, you will get one or two more letters going in, and we could end up with a confidence vote at Christmas of this year which means we will have had a year of agony.

“That’s the worst outcome, particularly for the 2019 and 2017 and 2015 intake – that, slice by slice by slice, this carries on and we bump along at minus whatever and, even worse, we create policies to try to paper over it.”

Describing “Operation Red Meat”, Downing Street’s proposed policy blitz to woo back the electorate, as “panicky populism” and an “insult to voters’ intelligence”, Mr Davis says he doesn’t just want leadership change but “a commitment to proper Conservativism, not Labour lite”.

Hence why he is keen to criticise Mr Wakeford for crossing the floor, saying: “It’s not the way to deal with this. The way to deal with this is to fight for the soul of our party.”

Revealing that he received no response to a letter he wrote to Mr Johnson before Christmas advising him on what he needed to do, he echoes an article he wrote for The Telegraph on Jan 7, headlined: “A philosophical reset can save Boris from disaster” as he explains: “It’s patronising to the ‘Red Wall’ voters – they can see through all that ‘red meat’ nonsense.

“Suddenly we’re going to commit the Navy to the Channel to sort immigration? That undermines our policy, it doesn’t enforce it.”

The former Tate & Lyle director, who was brought up on a council estate in Tooting, south London, adds: “I’ve lived amongst the Northern working class for most of my life, on and off.

“Firstly, you mustn’t underestimate their intelligence. They know what’s going on. That’s why they threw Labour out. They worked out that when Corbyn was saying he was going to increase the taxes on the rich, it also meant them. The trouble is that by us raising taxes, we’re doing the same.

“We’re losing the very people we won – the C1s, the skilled working class. We should cancel the National Insurance rise and the corporation tax increase. It’s no longer a question of keeping the ‘Red Wall’ but winning it back, and we are not going to do that with higher taxes.”

But isn’t Mr Davis worried that these former Labour voters aren’t going to stick with the Conservatives without charismatic Mr Johnson at the helm?

On whether “Red Wall” MPs owe their seats to the Prime Minister or whether it is the other way round, he replies: “A bit of both, actually. What Boris didn’t do is write a sort of suicide note manifesto, which we did at the previous election.

“The second thing is he represented Brexit in people’s minds. But Brexit wasn’t the biggest issue at the last election. It was Corbyn and high taxes. Brexit’s gone and people don’t vote for the past, they vote for the future.

“Of course you’ve got to update conservatism. You’ve got to do some environmental things – although I’m not sure I’d do net zero quite so quickly – to appeal to the next generation, but the fundamentals of a low tax operation where you keep most of your money, that’s just as appealing on a council estate in Wakefield as it is in Islington.”

Having been a Tory leadership candidate in 2001 and 2005, coming fourth and second respectively, Mr Davis, then the shadow home secretary, unexpectedly announced his intention to resign as an MP over civil liberties in 2008.

He fought and won a subsequent by-election, but the move gained him a reputation as one of the party’s chief “agitators”, although he insists: “I’m not an agitator, I’m a party man. I’ve never sent a letter of no confidence, and I’ve never voted against a leader, including Theresa May.”

He confirms that he has not written to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, and doesn’t intend to.

After being sidelined halfway through Mrs May’s negotiations with the EU, he quit as Brexit secretary over her Chequers deal in 2018, prompting Mr Johnson to resign as foreign secretary a day later.

Insisting he has “no animus with Boris” despite suggestions they have never got on, he says: “I voted for Boris. Where’s the evidence of me never liking Boris? I just think he’s encouraged a culture of entitlement in Number 10. That’s led to the behaviour pattern we’ve got, and I don’t see any sign of change.

“This is a character judgment. We’ve got to come out of this with a modicum of trust from the public. That trust is evaporating.

“I don’t want to sound like it’s like back to basics, because it’s not. We’re all fallible. In fact, Boris was elected as somebody who is fallible. People know that on one level, this is a trivial argument [about the parties], but the question is how do we shoulder that responsibility?”

Yet without a successor for Conservative colleagues to galvanise around, are fellow MPs really going to be brave enough to follow his lead?

Agreeing that the resistance to removing Mr Johnson “has partly been because people are not quite sure who’s next”, he quickly rules himself out of the running, joking: “I wouldn’t have done this if that was my plan. This is suicidal!”

He also refuses to comment on any potential successor to Mr Johnson, saying: “It’s far too early for that – we don’t know the full field yet. When we see it, ask me again.”

But of one thing he is certain. “Boris will not leave Number 10 unless he’s dragged out kicking and screaming,” he concludes. “Very few inhabitants of Number 10 go voluntarily. That’s why I felt the need to give him a nudge.”