James Forsyth has written this morning about the "David Davis problem". He thinks the Tory leadership needs to give him something to do. His article was sparked by Davis's piece in this morning's Times which calls into question the approach of contracting out the maintenance of health records to companies like Google. Forsyth views this as "unhelpful" to the Cameron leadership and lists it as the latest in a line of sallies by the former Shadow Home Secretary, which appear to demonstrate a willingness to fall off the tightrope of outright slavish loyalty. Well, up to a point.
There have been three occasions when Davis has written articles which have tried to kickstart a debate - on the future of Trident, and the need to cut public spending, and our role in Afghanistan. In all three cases he was successful. On Trident, he questioned the need for a full upgrade. Liam Fox might not have approved but many others around the leadership of the party did. And on public spending he was the first to suggest that this would be the main issue of the next election. He was criticised for raising the issue at the time, but he has been proven right. Similarly, after a trip last autumn to Afghanistan he raised a number of the issues which have since become common currency, and questioned the basis of our mission there.
A few weeks ago he wrote an article on the need to retain grammar schools. Last time I looked, that was actually Conservative Party policy. Admittedly he went on to say they should be expanded, which is patently not party policy.
This raises the whole question of what being a backbench Member of Parliament is for. Do we want a parliament full of nodding dogs? Surely not. What we want is for senior politicians to feel able to try to lead a debate on particular issues. If when Davis writes an article it is now only viewed through the prism of whether he is trying to cause trouble, it says something about the level of political debate in this country.
The trouble is that the media only ever report anything a senior politician says if it could in some way be interpreted as an attack on their party's leadership. Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke would no doubt agree. I am not saying that they are always wrong in this. All I am saying is that it is wrong to interpret everything a politician says in this way. It's called judgement.
But it is not only the media who have to judge when a politician is speaking with conviction or whether he's out to cause trouble. Politicians must exercise judgement too - they must judge when it is right to speak out and when it is best to shut up. No one easily forgives a politician who gratuitously rocks the boat in the nine months before an election. But a politician who has something meaningful to say but feels inhibited from doing so because of possible accusations of disloyalty may well not be able to forgive himself.
No one said being a politician was meant to be easy.