Philip Davies originally wanted to be a journalist but decided against it after coming to the conclusion that he lacked the confidence: ‘It was my ambition in life but I just realised I was too shy. You’ve got to have a confidence that I think I probably never had.’ Now an unruly backbencher, it’s hard to believe the MP for Shipley is one to suffer from self-doubt. Westminster’s pantomime villain, Davies has a reputation for championing unfashionable causes – from talking out bills that help the vulnerable to standing up for men’s rights in the face of ‘militant feminists’.
Last month he gave his critics fresh cause for complaint when he was elected – unopposed – to the Women and Equalities select committee. Given that Davies wants the word ‘women’ removed from the name (as it suggests ‘the only issues of any concern are issues relating to women’), his appointment has been met with scepticism, with the Women’s Equality Party branding it a ‘victory for misogyny’.
However, there’s no women-hating on show when we meet for lunch, in the Barry Room. In fact, Davies is close to charm personified — sharing his chips (‘proper chips’) and asking questions about my well-being like a concerned relative. It’s the day after Davies’ role has been confirmed in the Commons and he has just come from a ‘very positive’ meeting with Maria Miller, the committee chair, to go over the agenda for the year ahead (though one observer later tells me it looked as though he was being scolded like a naughty school boy). Over a burger – well-done – the Conservative MP discusses the backlash he’s faced: ‘it seems to be for this particular committee you are only allowed on if you have one particular view of it.’
Davies’ particular view is that men are being left behind at the expense of women’s issues, with white working-class boys now the least likely to go to university and male suicide on the rise. It was in this vein that he organised a debate in the Commons to mark International’s Men’s Day – much to the chagrin of his new committee colleague Jess Phillips. At the time, the Labour MP said it was needed as much as ‘white history month, or able body action day’. ‘I think she probably regrets giving the impression that men’s health and male suicide weren’t important issues that should be debated,’ Davies says. Either way, she hasn’t come round to Davies’ way of doing things. ‘She started off by saying I shouldn’t be able to join the committee, then she said people should just pat me on the head and say “there, there”’.
Davies’ opinions and those of his colleagues do appear to be like chalk and cheese. Of the committee’s inquiry into transgender equality last year, he says its recommendation that the UK introduce gender neutral passports is wrong as it would cause ‘a national security issue’; ‘There would be all sorts of issues with people coming in, illegal immigrants coming in and not knowing from their name whether it was meant to be a male name or a female name etc’. He would like the committee to hold an inquiry on Sharia councils and how they discriminate against women but doubts this will happen because of ‘the PC brigade’. It’s the PC brigade, again, that will be to blame if the upcoming inquiry into discrimination faced by gypsies doesn’t focus on women’s rights within the traveller community:
‘If you wanted to pick some downtrodden women I would have thought gypsy women would be rather high up on your list of potential targets to be perfectly frank. This is the problem with the PC brigade, occasionally you get issues where you get competing PC campaigns and you’ve got to start choosing which one.’
It was in Davies’ quest for equality that he recently decided to filibuster (the practise by which one talks non-stop in a bid to block proposed legislation) for 78 minutes a private member’s bill to protect women against domestic violence. ‘All I was ever arguing for was that we look after all victims of domestic violence,’ he says in defence. ‘There are more female victims of domestic violence seems to be one of the arguments. That’s like me saying, I’ll tell you what, there are more male victims of murder than female victims of murder so let’s not bother investigating any female victims of murder, let’s just concentrate on the male victims of murder.’ Had he thought about backing the bill and then bringing in one to help men after? ‘I have never heard that argument out of any of the people, I haven’t seen that in the convention anywhere…,’ he replies — the only point in the interview where he seems to run out of words.
But Davies has history here. In his time as an MP, he has tried to talk out many bills including ones to provide free hospital car parking for carers and require landlords to make homes fit for human habitation. It’s an unpopular practise that many want abolished. However, Davies insists it’s as legitimate a means to stopping a bill as getting supportive MPs to attend a vote is to passing one: ‘People come up with this sanctimonious thing when really that’s just a load of old cobblers.’ ‘In my first parliament when a private members bill was trying to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act which would have meant the expenses scandal would never have come out, some absolute heroes talked the bill out. Did anybody complain about them? No, of course they didn’t.’
There’s a theory in Westminster that Davies is often put up by his party to do and say the things they can’t be seen to. But his frank talk suggests he is no No.10 stooge. He remains a big supporter of Andrea Leadsom (who he voted for in the leadership contest), was disappointed that Caroline Johnson was not permitted to give a victory speech when she won the Sleaford by-election – ‘she’s an MP for God’s sake. If you can’t trust her to do an interview why have her as a candidate?’ – and thinks Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park by-election defeat to ‘that awful woman’ was a great loss to British politics. He says his motives are simple: ‘I don’t like being bullied. Anyone who tries to bully me I will do the exact opposite. The more they try and bully me the more I’m determined I’m going to win.’ As for the Prime Minister’s view? Davies suspects she is ‘just as horrified’ as Phillips by his most recent appointment.
Although Davies doesn’t know Theresa May well – and says any MP who claims they do is lying – he thinks the fact he ‘can’t remember her ever in 11 years coming to the tea room’ is something to respect as it means ‘she hasn’t got this clique’. It was the other way round with David Cameron, who Davies got on well with personally in spite of his chumocracy:
‘I did say to him pretty early on as prime minister, you’ve got all these people who are never going to tell you you are doing anything wrong because they all think like you. He said “no, no, no, these people, if they think I’m doing anything wrong they’ll tell me”. I said I’m sure they would but the trouble is they don’t ever think you’re doing anything wrong. I’m not questioning their honesty, I’m questioning the fact that you haven’t got a broad enough range of views around the table.’
His new colleagues might not be grateful for it yet but if Davies can bring anything to his role it’s making sure the committee doesn’t fall into the Cameron trap and become an echo chamber. After all, no MP should be afraid of a bit of lively debate.