For David Davis having the necessary argument is more than a duty: it is a pleasure. “We’re going to have to have a big argument within the Conservative Party about economic policy,” he said as he took questions from an audience which filled the ConHome tent.
Davis pointed out that Margaret Thatcher was often unpopular at this stage in a Parliament: “The question we should ask is whether what we do now is going to deliver a good outcome in two years’ time.”
So we should be asking whether raising National Insurance will deliver more jobs or fewer in two years’ time: “I worry about the National Insurance increase. I worry about the Corporation Tax increase.”
Not that Davis falls for the idea that some perfect policy exists.
When asked whether he himself has made mistakes, he joked for a moment that he had made none, but then went on: “We all make mistakes. I don’t criticise the Government for making mistakes.”
He said that what we need are not great men but great institutions: “Great institutions protect you from big mistakes.”
And later: “Good institutions do not deliver perfection, they deliver correction.”
He instanced the slave trade, For the whole of the seventeenth century “we had a terrible record on slavery”. But in 1807, Parliament changed its mind, and decided to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, which was what over the next 60 years the Royal Navy managed to achieve, displaying “heroism on a grand scale”:
“It’s the greatest ethical foreign policy and the most expensive in the world ever.”
In 1968, when student riots erupted at the Sorbonne in Paris, David Davis was in his first year at Warwick University: “I turned out to be the only person arguing against the riots.”
He became Chairman of that nursery of talent, the Federation of Conservative Students, in which capacity he saw Ted Heath four times a year, and Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, ten times a year.
Britain seemed condemned to decline, but when Thatcher became leader she said, “Our job is to reverse the decline.” Davis recalled how “incredibly controversial” the 1981 Budget had been.
He entered Parliament in 1987 and soon found himself defending the Maastricht Treaty. This was not the fight he wanted to have: it was a fight that could not be avoided.
He thought the treaty was “terrible”, but that if John Major’s Government fell, Labour would get in and go much further with European integration, so there was “no right answer outcome”.
At this point he quoted David Frost’s observation earlier in the day:
“All history, all experience, shows that democratic countries with free economies, which let people keep the money they have earned, make their own decisions, and manage their own lives, are not just richer but also happier and more admired by others.”
“That’s actually a fantastic paragraph,” Davis said. “I’d stick it on the wall at home. Our history is the history of freedom.”
And that freedom includes the freedom to rebel when you conclude that the Government is getting something wrong. He was interviewed by Ryan Henson, Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity, which “brings together political, military, business and faith leaders” to make the case for “an effective development budget”.
Davis was a leading figure in the recent Tory rebellion against cuts in the international development budget, which he believed was heading for success: “We thought we had 50 [MPs] – it evaporated – we probably need 70 next time.”
He added that “you’ve got to move the public as well as the Government,” who can then put pressure on their MPs.
When asked about his back story, as the son of a single mother on a council estate, Davis objected:
“It’s become fashionable to talk about your back story. The press are gullible about it. They believe Angela Rayner to be a normal member of the working class.”