David Davies MP: We can’t start pissing around with leadership campaigns, we haven’t got that luxury

David Davies, MP for Monmouth in South Wales, has faithfully served his constituency for twelve years, having previously held the Welsh Assembly seat of the same name. Davies, currently the chair for the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, has been described as being on the right of the Conservative Party, a label he personally does not reject, and – on the day of this interview – wrote an article for Conservative Woman decrying the government’s plan to allow individuals to change their registered sex online. A known Brexiteer, and not one to shy away from controversy, I was naturally quite anxious to speak to him.

Despite a rocky start to the call with neither of us able to the hear the other, we eventually get some clear signal and he fires away with “so you go to university?”. I tell him where and what I’m studying, before enquiring where he studied. “I actually didn’t go to university” he tells me patiently. “Oh, I’m sorry, these days you just sort of assume...” I bumble out, but quite politely he shakes it off. “Don’t worry, I understand, though I do think too many people attend university these days.”

Given the current government’s championing of the increased levels of university attendance, this is a rare breaking of ranks – but perhaps not too rare for Davies. “When I was younger, if you went to university you could get a grant – but I had two E’s at A level and that was enough to get most jobs that you’d need a degree for now – do a trainee scheme, join the army as an officer, whatever.” It was at this point I realised the interview had already begun: so much for my opening questions. 

Following on from this, he says quite plainly “university is not for everyone, and pretending it is only hurts those students who go, rack up an enormous debt, and come out with a, to be quite honest, useless degree. Plymouth University offers a Surfing Studies degree. What use is that to anyone?”

When I ask him how we can change this, Davies suggests cutting universities’ funding, and say that they need to show a benefit to society from the university education. “What you need is practical skills – balancing the books, buying stock. And secondly, I would start to highlight the apprenticeship scheme that companies are now offering. I know someone who’s training to become an accountant – it’s not all factory floor work.” I suggest to him that there is a focus on qualifications as opposed to skills these days. “Well I think people think there is, but that’s not necessarily the case – General Electric Aviation were telling me the other day that they’re taking senior management off the shop floor. They’re taking young people, putting them through education – a vocational degree, for example – and then take them on higher up.

“And we’re not hearing that – so the government should be looking to get businesses to talk to young people about the different options available to them. Young people seem to think you need to get a degree, even if it’s a rubbish degree from a rubbish university. And why does it have to be a three-year degree course? Why do six hours a week – why not do eighteen hours a week, and do it in eighteen months?”

On the topic of young people and education, I put to him the burning question that’s been making the rounds in conservative circles: how does, or can, conservatism appeal to young people? “Well… I think young people are fed up with coming out of university with £70,000 worth of debt… and when someone like Jeremy Corbyn comes along and hints at maybe wiping out debt, people would say to themselves ‘well I know he won’t – but he might get rid of a quarter, or some.’ And why wouldn’t you vote for that?

So we’re saying we’re going to freeze fees for another a year, and raise the payback threshold, but this is just tinkering isn’t it? It’s not actually going to make any difference to people, when Corbyn is hinting he might scrap fees completely. So we need to rip it up and start again – systematically go through and get rid of useless courses. As someone who employs young people in my office, graduates with these degrees wouldn’t impress me at all. But this isn’t a money-saving thing: we still need doctors and so on. Let’s take courses which train people into jobs for which there is a shortage, and help people study things that would lead straight to a job.”

Shifting onto the wider appeal of conservatism in the twenty-first century, and the fact that many people seem to think it’s an outdated belief system, Davies says to me somewhat tiredly that the irrelevance of conservatism has always been said. “I joined the party in 1984 or ’85, and people have always thought this. But Labour – they get in, often with quite good intentions, they spend vast amounts of money, and then when the party’s over we kind of need to act like the adults and clean up the mess.” Again, asking how we can change peoples’ perspectives, Davies pins the blame on Labour being allowed to hammer the Conservative Party on austerity: “Labour go on and on about austerity, and we use this language too, when really we should be talking about balancing the books, and not relying on banks.

"And the Left love to hate the banks, but why are they happy to become dependant on them by printing bonds and selling them to banks? And Labour always get away with attacking ‘shareholders’ as if they’re walking round the City of London wearing top hats, whereas anyone with a pension in the private sector is a shareholder. It’s just that a pension company has bought shares on their behalf to pay for them – what I would do is find a way of explaining to people ‘this is what your pension is made up of – these shares, those shares and that share’. So when the government of the day attacks shareholders, they realise it’s their money and not some fat bloke in a top hat!”

I suggest that the Left dictates the terms of the debate, and he concurs, but moves on to the media as well. “The BBC do just-about-enough to provide ‘impartiality’. But when you get softer news shows, like Have I Got News For You, where are the centre-right comedians? No one ever makes fun of Corbyn in the way they’ll make fun of May”.

Taking this mention of May as an opportunity, I quiz him on his stance on Theresa May’s premiership, but Davies is resolutely loyal. “I think we need to back Theresa May. We can’t start pissing around with leadership campaigns, we haven’t got that luxury. People need to grow up. If we lose more confidence, we’ll face another election and we might lose to a neo-communist, leading a group of Marxists, and we can forget about Brexit – let’s stop the pissing around and get behind Theresa May.”

Curious, I ask if this is the broad feeling within the party, or if it really is as the media says it is. “I do think so – there are always going to be people who aren’t happy, but I think the vast majority realise the danger, and the media are just exaggerating things.” When I ask him where the strength of the Conservative Party lies, he confidently replies, “pragmatism. That’s always been an overriding factor – from the days of Disraeli, or even Peele. Pragmatism is important, and not being wedded to some sort of doctrine. And at the moment, if people are complaining we’re too left, and some are complaining we’re too right, we must be about in the centre-right and doing the right thing, that’s where we should be. We should never have extremism in either direction – it’s important that we as backbenchers have our voices heard but recognise that they may not always be practical, and the government of the day is going to do the right thing for the country”

Personally, Davies seems quite happy on the backbenches, and thinks backbench loyalty is something to be promoted and encouraged – but still has ambition. “I’m the first Conservative MP to chair the Welsh Affairs Select Committee which I’m very proud of, and if I was offered a Ministerial role of course I’d take it. But at the same time, I’m never going to push myself forward. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. Too many people seem to think they’ve got some God-given right to be a Minister, and this is not the case – I think, when we’re selecting candidates, we should ask them ‘are you happy to be serve your entire career as a backbencher MP?’ because if not I don’t think you should be in the job at all. You should be proud to be serving as a backbench MP.”

Seeing as he is a Welsh MP, I wanted to press Davies on his thoughts on the Scottish Conservative revival before we wrapped up, and whether he thinks that’s possible in Wales; to which he quickly replies, “well I think it already has”. Suggesting that there may be a Welsh Conservative revival going, but it’s just not being talked about, he replies that he thinks that’s right. “We’re in a healthy position in Wales”.

Admitting that the party took a backwards step in this year’s General Election in terms of seats, Davies details how Welsh Conservative MPs have been growing in number since the late-90s, modestly commenting that he was one of the first Conservatives to be elected to a Welsh Assembly seat. He tells me, with a hint of pride, of a time when he went to a neighbouring constituency to talk about Brexit, where before a Tory would have been run off the streets. “But actually,” he states, “everyone was quite polite to me. I found that people there believed in conservative principles and were quite close to Conservative Party policies and what it wants to do, they just don’t see themselves as conservative voters.”

When I ask what can be done to address this, he confidently asserts that the answer is fostering homegrown talent. “The big parties have this attitude that, they’ll send a prospective candidate to an area he won’t win, and it deeply encourages old prejudices. But we’ve sent people to fight in the valleys and they’re from, maybe South England, and that doesn’t work. To combat this, we have to select local MPs, encourage Welsh conservatives to step up. We’ve got a lot of Welsh people in the Party, from working class backgrounds, and if we can encourage them to step up, we’ll definitely get the votes in.”

Bringing the interview to a close, we exchange pleasantries and I say I’ll send him a copy of the interview before it goes online, to which he replies “nah, don’t worry about that – if I’ve said something outrageous then I can deny it!” Let’s hope he’s pleased with this write-up, at the very least.

 

David Davies is the Member of Parliament for Monmouth. 

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