Class never quite goes away as an issue for the Tories, for the simple and sufficient reason that it matters. Lately it was Michael Gove stating the obvious, that the Prime Minister mixes mostly with people with backgrounds like his own…a perfectly human impulse, but not a good look, the Old Etonian coterie. Now David Davis has observed (on the radio) over the weekend, as John Major did last year, that it’s much harder than it was when he was growing up for a working class boy to get ahead in the world. Mr Davis is a product of a Tooting grammar school, a route that’s now closed, but it wasn’t just grammars that he was talking about, but social mobility generally.
It’s not the first time he’s given the government the benefit of his views on class. Last year, similarly, he observed after the local elections:
‘The fact is that if we want to win the next election, we have to break this impression of being privileged and out of touch. The British public are neither snobs nor inverted snobs, but they do expect the government to understand their problems and do something about it.
‘That means more straight talking and fewer focus groups: more conventional Tory policies, not because they are Tory, but because they work: less pandering to metropolitan interest groups: and please, please, no more Old Etonian advisers.’
Well, fair enough.
You know, I’ve never quite understood why David Davis’s quixotic and romantic gesture, in resigning his Haltemprice and Howden seat in 2008 in protest at the threats to civil liberties, should have disqualified him for the next six years from the Tory front bench. But whenever I’ve raised the possibility that Mr Davis should return to the party’s front line with anyone close to ministers, I’ve been told, with a touch of impatience, that he’s yesterday’s man.
But I’m not sure that Mr Cameron is so richly blessed with working class talent around him that he can afford to ignore Mr Davis. The PM visits council estates; he didn’t grow up on one as David Davis did. That’s hardly a fault, but it would be culpable if he didn’t try to compensate by including in his cabinet rather more people who know what it was like to struggle to make ends meet; I’m not sure that Patrick McLoughlin is enough to go round. And while it’s true that both William Hague and Michael Gove didn’t go to Eton or St Paul’s, David Davis is still the nearest the Tories get to Alan Johnson, which is, I may say, a good thing.
Background matters. One reason why John Major was so emphatic in government about the importance of containing inflation was that he knew from his own family background how terrifying rising prices are to people on a limited income.
Mr Cameron always sounds as though he’s making an effort of imagination to conjure up what people of normal means might think and feel. David Davis would usefully help rebalance the Cabinet. He’d be an excellent immigration minister, if the job weren’t too lowly. And if he, like James Brokenshire, (the new, rather admirable incumbent) were to have a go at the metropolitan elite, it wouldn’t sound quite as much as if he were criticising his own.