The line between genius and madness, they say, can be very fine. Usually, it's a matter of timing: the right idea, if it comes too early or too late, might seem impractical, implausible or ridiculous, its originator a crank. So is David Davis a genius or a madman? I hope the former. For too long New Labour have trashed individual liberties in this country, in the name of security or, often, efficiency. They have been able thus far to rely on public indifference, resignation and fear. Commentators often invoke the image of a frog being slowly simmered in a saucepan, first lulled into unconsciousness by the slowly-rising temperature and finally unable to escape; though perhaps a lobster makes a better analogy, gradually turning red in the heat.
But in truth perhaps 42 days is the one most salient example of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedom.
And we will have shortly the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it.
We have witnessed an assault on jury trials, a bolt against bad law and its arbitrary use by the state.
And shortcuts with our justice system, which will make our system neither firm nor fair and a creation of a database state opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.
The state has security powers to clamp down on peaceful protest and so-called hate laws to stifle legitimate debate, whilst those who incite violence get off scot-free.
This cannot go on, it must be stopped, and for that reason today I feel it is incumbent on me to take a stand.
Theatrical it may be; Davis's move is also dangerous, both to himself and to his cause. Labour will be trying to portray it as a self-indulgent stunt and indicative of Tory splits - though if Conservative Home is anything to go by, the initial response of most grassroots activists has been little short of ecstatic. My naturally pessimistic thoughts turned to the classic Beyond the Fringe sketch "The Aftermyth of War" in which Peter Cook sends Jonathan Miller to his death, explaining, "We need a futile gesture at this stage. It'll raise the whole tone of the War."
It's natural, when a political development as surprising and seemingly illogical as this occurs, to look for some conspiracy. Was there a row between Cameron and Davis, with the former threatening to water down the Conservatives' commitment to reversing the 42-day decision? Is Davis setting down a marker for himself as future leader, at the same time surreptitiously damaging Cameron's chances of becoming prime minister by boosting Labour? Is Davis simply looking for a hollow triumph? Is he attempting to pre-empt any Conservative backsliding on civil liberties? None of these explanations really make sense. If he had disagreements with Cameron, he could simply have resigned from the front bench. No: this coup de theatre is as it seems. Davis really does believe what he is saying.
The best scenario - the one Davis must be hoping for, and the Labour will be dreading - is that the by-election campaign in Howden turns into a modern version of Gladstone's Midlothian campaign of 1880, and that he succeeds in bringing the hitherto somnolent but increasingly resentful British people to care as passionately as he does about the freedoms we have lost. Opinion polls in recent days have shown considerable majorities in favour of the government's moves to impose 42 days pre-charge detention, presumably on the grounds that the police seem to want it and, in any case, the measure would only apply to suspected terrorists. But other measures, such as ID cards, are far less widely loved, especially by those who have heard about the cost. And the steady drip-drip of newspaper stories and personal experiences continues: the local councils making use of surveillance powers to monitor parents, the time-wasting and ineffectual security at airports, the perversity, rudeness and box-ticking lack of perspective increasingly shown by the police, the rubbish-collection Stasi, the carelessness repeatedly shown by the government when handling compulsorily-obtained and sometimes unnecessary data. It is this accumulation of annoyance and frustration, far more than the symbolic (but important) 42 days, that has the potential to turn Davis's upcoming campaign into far more than a political stunt.
In today's Times, fortuitously, Camilla Cavendish has a wonderful article about how petty officialdom, in all its forms, is ruining the quality of life in Britain. "Britain is starting to feel like a nation of traffic wardens," she writes. "The mentality of officialdom is increasingly malevolent." She enumerates examples: the leading businessman shouted at by a woman from the British Transport Police for joining the wrong ticket queue (though she apologised profusely when it turned out he had a knighthood); or the "screeching official" at Victoria station who seemed to take "acute pleasure" in making Cavendish herself miss her train; or the high-handed reaction shown to a group of leading midwives who complained that "there is now no health professional, or official help line that parents feel they can safely ask for help". As she concludes,
Each new measure is justified in the same way - you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong, But that is no longer true. We have everything to fear from a State that has lost all sense of proportion. In a free society, rights and laws protect people from the government.
The mood of anger and mistrust at the government and its petty-minded representatives is palpable and growing. Thus far, however, it has been inchoate and disparate; more importantly, it has not been linked in the public mind with the "purer" questions of civil liberties, manifested in the government's moves to erode jury trial and its curbs on the right to demonstrate, subjects that move the tender sensibilities of human rights lawyers like Shami Chakrabarti but have had regrettably little purchase elsewhere. To these I would add the contempt for the electorate shown by the Brown government's cynical abandonment of its promise of a referendum on the re-written European constitution. If David Davis can plausibly draw together these threads over the coming weeks he stands a chance of enthusing the British people with the passion for civil liberties that has always been a part of the best traditions of the Conservative party.
I won't fight it on my personal record - I am just a piece in this great chess game.
I will fight it, I will argue this byelection against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government.
Now, that may mean I have made my last speech to the House. It's possible. And of course that would be a cause of deep regret to me. But at least my electorate and the nation, as a whole, would have had the opportunity to debate and consider one of the most fundamental issues of our day.
The ever-intrusive power of the state on our lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and a steady attrition undermining the rule of law. And if they do send me back here, it will be with a single, simple message - that the monstrosity of a law that we passed yesterday will not stand. That the British people have grown tired of the inflated, arbitrary and arrogant power accumulated by this Government. And that the slow but ceaseless encroachment of the state into their daily lives must come to an end.
By his action today, David Davis has shown himself a man of principle and courage, and in his magnificent speech he found the voice that eluded him three years ago when he stood for the Tory leadership. The question is, though, has he judged the mood of the nation right? Will he inspire a true rebirth of freedom - or, at least, a rebirth of concern for freedom? If so, he will be welcomed back to the Conservative benches as a hero, who has made both the party and the civil liberties agenda unassailable. If he flops - even if re-elected - in a campaign that fails to catch light, and perhaps with no or only token opposition, then he will not only make himself look ridiculous, he will make the cause of freedom seem irrelevant. The Tories will be less assiduous in making the case for liberty. And the Labour government will feel empowered to press on with the next database, the next legal short-cut, the next ill-considered new law.
Davis has shown himself worthy of the British people. But are the people worthy of him?