Back in May, I wrote about how the widening cracks within the Welsh Conservatives risked undermining their bid to capitalise on strong polling and deliver historic gains at next year’s devolved elections, with devolution becoming ‘Europe 2.0’.
Not only did a section of the grassroots appear to be getting much more vocal on the question, but the Party faced the prospect of being outflanked on its right by parties formally adopting a devosceptic agenda.
Despite what I was hearing from the rank and file, more senior sources – including some not personally ill-disposed towards devoscepticism – assured me there was nothing to see. This was a perennial debate amongst the membership, yes, but they expected everyone to fall into line in the end.
Two months on and it appears that the leadership may have been more spooked than this analysis suggested.
Paul Davies is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary. But following a ‘relaunch of his leadership’ in March in which he took aim at the Assembly gravy train’, the Welsh Conservatives have adopted a much more strident tone on the question. Davies now says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution‘ – you can listen to the speech here – and has even gone so far as to say Cardiff Bay needs a “dose of Dom”.
Meanwhile Darren Millar MS, the power behind the Tory throne, has trained the Party’s guns on the devocracy (although of course not using the term).
Writing on Gwydir, the blog of the Cardiff University Conservatives, he promises a cull the algal bloom of quangos (“cronies and hangers-on in civic society”) which has spread across the stagnant waters of Cardiff Bay under two decades of unbroken Labour rule. Or to drain the swamp, as it were.
Yet perhaps the spiciest passage is the one which really drives home that this is no gradual evolution, but a definite and deliberate shift in approach:
“Over the summer the process of developing a full first draft of the Welsh Conservative manifesto will be completed and I can assure you that it won’t be Butskellism with a dragon on it. The days when you could take paragraphs from a Welsh Conservative manifesto and slot them randomly into documents by Plaid or Labour or the Lib Dems are over.”
That is a barb with a target, and it is clearly causing some unease amongst the devophile wing. David Melding, a retiring MS of pronounced nationalist sympathies, hit back on Twitter, but it feels suddenly as if he’s sailing against the wind. ‘Ever looser Union’ no longer looks like an inevitable future.
None of this is to say that the current leadership has converted to devoscepticism. It certainly has not, and Millar especially is viewed by devosceptics as something of a witchfinder-general on the constitutional question. The ferocity of the response to Daniel Kawczynski’s call for the Senedd’s abolition is a better indicator of their true feelings on that fundamental question.
But they have clearly concluded that it is no longer sufficient simply to have the whips machine-gun the parapet and force people to keep their heads down. Devoscepticism is a constituency, and the question is breaking out whether they like it or not. Candidates are penning pieces criticising devolution.
One has even gone so far as to suggest, in a piece for the Centre for Welsh Studies, that the Party is approaching a make-or-break moment:
“In next year’s Senedd Elections I see the future of Wales at a crossroads and my view is clear: if Conservative policies cannot deliver the positive changes we need to see to drive forward improvements in our public services, infrastructure and economy then we must campaign for a different settlement. That settlement would not include a Senedd.”
Given how recently devoscepticism was anathematised by the Party hierarchy, it’s remarkable that someone aiming for office should feel able even to hold out the prospect of opposing devolution.
Their framing, however, reflects that of the leadership. In materials from a recent strategy session, seen by ConHome, Tory strategists included the slogan “Abolish Labour, not devolution”. The goal is evidently to harness mounting dissatisfaction with Cardiff Bay and channel it towards a Conservative programme, rather than abolition.
But is this feasible? The Party is acting as if it were. Notwithstanding their polling, their operation includes a concerted effort to mobilise the hundreds of thousands of Tory voters who turn out to consistently deliver it second place at Westminster contests but ignore devolved ones, leaving it bumping along at roughly level pegging with the Welsh Nationalists.
Were the Conservatives to hit their goal of getting 75 per cent of their 2019 vote (557,234) to turn out next year, it would give them almost 418,000 votes. For comparison, they took just 190,846 in 2016. Indeed Labour, which took 29 seats at that contest, only won just over 319,000 votes in that election.
But is this goal realistic? We have covered the gulf between the two Welsh Conservative electorates several times since 2018. Last year, I explained that “‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary status quo and trying to align themselves as possible coalition partners with Plaid Cymru” made it impossible for the Tories to motivate their devosceptic stay-at-home voters.
On this front, the tough new rhetoric and rumoured shift in stance against governing with other parties is a good start. Operationally, the Conservatives also have an advantage in that they have the data to know where these voters are. The various parties scrapping for the anti-Senedd vote will need time to build up their own electoral intelligence.
But it still seems a long shot, not least because any strategy built on mobilising non-voters always is (ask Jeremy Corbyn). There is also a danger that the Tories might rouse these slumbering dragons only for them to plump for Abolish, even if just for the regional vote, once they get to the polling station.
It also seems unlikely that the Conservatives could marshal hundreds of thousands of new voters without provoking some kind of response from the the Left. There are a good number of Labour voters who don’t turn out for Cardiff Bay too – will they stay idle if it looks like the Tories might be about to take power?
There also remains a big question mark over whether the leadership would really turn out an opportunity to turf Labour out, after so long, even if the price were a compact with Plaid.
A big win next year might slice this strategic Gordian Knot. But should this plan fail, and grassroots Conservatives despair of ever taking power in the Senedd, it seems likely that pressure will continue to build for an even more devosceptic position.
Some in Wales are already suggesting that, notwithstanding efforts to keep them off the lists, it may not be long until an anti-Senedd candidate contests and even wins the leadership. The alternative could be the slow bleed of activists and councillors to Abolish growing to a haemorrhage.