Davies forced out as Conservative leader in the Welsh Parliament. What will change?

23 Jan

On Thursday, my column covered the scandal engulfing Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament, and his close allies after they were apparently caught breaching Covid regulations to hold a drinking session in the Senedd.

Last night, it looked as if he might be able to hang on after both he and Darren Millar, his chief whip who was also at the event, received the full support of the Tory MS group.

This was a baffling decision, especially since Labour had already suspended their own MS whilst the incident was investigated. It was also precipitate: apparently the decision was taken before the first official report into the incident was published. As a result, MSs were then to meet on Monday to discuss that evidence and potentially re-visit their decision.

Yet clearly the writing was on the wall, even before Guido published further revelations about a second night.

Today, both Davies and Millar have resigned. Each insists that they did not breach the coronavirus regulations and disputes the more lurid elements of the story, such as the claim that the MSs got drunk and needed to be escorted from the building.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it would have been extremely difficult for Davies to stay on. His leadership has not exactly set Welsh politics ablaze, and he was caught in an awkward clash between the Cardiff Bay consensus of his Senedd colleagues and an increasingly energised and devosceptic grassroots. Worse, the scandal would have undermined any Tory effort to press their advantage against Mark Drakeford over his abysmal handling of the vaccine rollout.

So what comes next? With the next Welsh elections due sometime this year, and perhaps in the next few months, there seems to be little appetite for a full contest and a vote of the membership (especially not a restive membership that just effectively deselected Suzy Davies, who stood against Paul in the last leadership contest). A coronation is in the offing.

Yet that almost certainly means a return of the only MS with the profile to take on the job from where we are now: Andrew RT Davies, the right-wing, pro-Brexit leader who was ousted by an internal putsch in 2018.

This has the potential to change the dynamics of Welsh right-wing politics in interesting ways. ‘RT’ would be a much more convincing message-carrer for the Tories’ new soft-devoscepticism than his predecessor if he chose to go down that route, which in turn might arrest the rise of the Abolish the Assembly Party in the polls. But committing to that approach would rule out the party’s long-term hope of striking some sort of deal with Plaid Cymru and hasten the need for a more profound strategic rethink about the role and vision of the Conservatives in Cardiff.

Henry Hill: Welsh Conservative leader under pressure to quit over Senedd drinking session

21 Jan

Davies reportedly mulling resignation as leadership rival is deselected

Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament, is apparently considering his position after being caught breaking public health rules at a ‘secret boozy party’ at the Senedd.

He and several other Labour and Tory MSs were reportedly kicked out of the building by security at 2am after getting “caught red-handed” helping themselves to alcohol from an “open bar”. Darren Millar, the Conservatives’ chief whip and a key ally of Davies, was also amongst those present.

The timing is terrible, as the scandal has completely cut across the Conservatives’ attempts to hold Mark Drakeford’s feet to the fire over his effective sabotage of the Welsh vaccine rollout. Labour have been swift to call for the suspension of those involved, and taken action against their own MS to increase the pressure. Meanwhile a growing chorus of grassroots Tories are also calling for Davies to go.

For his part, local sources suggest the leader has already offered to resign, but that Millar is digging his heels in. For the moment they have apologised and denied any wrongdoing. It isn’t entirely obvious who his successor would be, although several sources suggested Andrew RT Davies is the only contender with adequate profile and standing with the grassroots. ‘RT’ was ousted by an internal putsch in the summer of 2018.

Just as with the ructions inside the Scottish Nationalists, there are some who detect dark forces at work in the calls for Davies to step down. Whilst it makes sense for activists to wish to avoid a long (perhaps very long) election campaign fronted by a wounded leader, others see this as the latest salvo in a deepening split in the Party between the Cardiff Bay old guard and increasingly emboldened devosceptics.

Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister enjoying a second life as a federalist on the constitutional cabaret circuit, took to Twitter to suggest that whilst “of course” the incident needed to be investigated, the real question was whether or not the news was leaked to the press by what he ignorantly dubbed the Welsh Tories’ ‘English nationalist’ wing.

This echoes the language employed by Huw Irranca-Davies, a Labour MS, in this story about the surprising results of the Conservatives’ candidate selection contests. These saw Suzy Davies, a sitting MS who contested the last leadership election, placed bottom of her regional list by local members. Absent a surprise win in her target constituency of Bridgend, this means she will be leaving the Senedd.

Davies is widely viewed as being on the Welsh nationalist wing of the Conservatives, and even a source that regretted her deselection said that she was “not a Tory”. But despite the suggestion by David Melding, another outgoing MS on her wing of the party, that it was a devosceptic stitch-up, Davies herself insists it was simply down to the dynamics of her local party – although the two are of course not mutually exclusive.

Melding’s unease is readily explained by the fact that devosceptics are breaking out into the open inside the party. This week, the BBC reported that several Tory candidates are openly advocating abolishing the Welsh Parliament. Activists have been galvanised by the emergence of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, which the latest polls suggest is on track to win two seats in the Senedd.

It has already shifted the centre of gravity on the Welsh right. Davies has previously tried to ‘reset’ his leadership with a devosceptic pivot, and the old Conservative strategy of seeking some sort of arrangement with Plaid Cymru now looks like an artefact of another era.

MSPs keep up the pressure on Sturgeon as they seek ‘explosive’ documents

It’s been nice to lead on something else this week, but we couldn’t conclude the column without checking in on the Alex Salmond affair. Last week, the former First Minister asked the official inquiry to grant him immunity from prosecution in order to make sure that he could honour his oath to tell the whole truth when giving evidence.

Now the Daily Telegraph reports that MSPs, whilst sceptical of the sources, are trying to find a way to get hold of documents allegedly secured by Salmond but which the latter is unable to publish. These apparently cast doubt on the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband. However, in a break for the First Minister it seems that important evidence from Geoff Aberdein, a close ally of Salmond, won’t be published.

Meanwhile she also faces more questions after officials accidentally leaked to Sky their media strategy for handling what ought to have been a run-of-the-mill request for a copy of the Scottish Government’s grievance procedure. It included seeking sign-off from the offices of both Sturgeon and Leslie Evans, Scotland’s most senior civil servant.

And your run-of-the-mill tale of SNP incompetence for the week: Jeane Freeman, their Health Secretary, has apologised to Matt Hancock after accidentally publishing figures which could jeopardise British vaccine procurement efforts. She may have breached the ministerial code.

Even by Welsh Labour’s standards, Drakeford’s decision to slow the vaccine rollout is abysmal

19 Jan

Ever since efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19 first broke down over the summer, the pandemic has been a crash course in devolution for those who hadn’t been following the constitutional debate.

Although Scotland tends to get more attention, both because the stakes are higher and because of the extraordinary drama playing out between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Wales has provided plenty of eye-opening examples of devocrat governance in action.

Early in the pandemic, Conservatives attacked the Welsh Government after it opted out of Westminster’s initiatives to ensure food deliveries to high-priority individuals and recruit and coordinate volunteers via the ‘GoodSAM’ app. Later the nation was treated to the absurd sight of Welsh supermarkets having to fence off isles of ‘non-essential’ goods in order to avoid “unfair competition” with other shops.

Yet none of that is as bizarre as Mark Drakeford’s decision to deliberately slow the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in the Principality. This will leave vulnerable people needlessly unprotected – just to make sure that his vaccinators aren’t left with nothing to do until the next shipment comes in.

The First Minister faces a fierce backlash, and rightly so. Even Plaid Cymru, who have until now been generally supportive of the Welsh Government, have gone on the attack. But it remains to be seen if any of that will make a difference.

Like the SNP, Labour in Wales have yet to squander the initial ‘rally round the flag’ surge in popular goodwill from the start of the crisis, and in both Edinburgh and Cardiff the government’s popular support seems remarkably immune from day-to-day misgovernment. Whilst the most recent polls suggest a slight narrowing in their support there is nothing resembling an alternative administration to be seen, as the Welsh Conservatives are unlikely to risk striking a deal with the Nationalists for fear of turbo-charging the rise of Abolish the Assembly, who are on track for two seats.

Why the Government is under pressure to confirm the date of the local elections

9 Jan

Last month, we looked at the measures the Government is bringing forward to try and ensure that this year’s local elections, having been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, proceed as planned in May.

These included increased campaigning expenses and proposals for ’emergency proxy voting’ for those forced to self-isolate.

Yet with the nation plunged back into lockdown, local government figures are again concerned about the prospect of delays and have demanded clarity from Ministers about whether or not the elections will go ahead. So what’s going on?

For its part, the Government continues to insist that it will be possible, using the safeguards it is putting in place, to conduct “covid-secure” elections on schedule. According to the Cabinet Office:

“Primary Legislation provides that the elections will go ahead in May 2021. We continue to work closely with the electoral community and public health bodies to resolve challenges and ensure everyone will be able to cast their vote safely and securely – and in a way of their choosing. Measures are planned to support absent voting at short notice. Guidance will be published in good time ahead of the polls and this matter will be kept under review.”  

Inside Whitehall, the difficulty is seen to lie less with polling day itself than with the broader campaigning period. If the Government isn’t able to start easing lockdown restrictions as swiftly as planned, it may remain illegal for activists to do in-person campaigning. And if different parts of the country are descending through the tiers at different speeds, that risks a regionally-unequal democratic process.

Moreover, there are legislative challenges to further postponement. The new election date is enshrined in legislation, and the power to delay them under the Coronavirus Act has expired. So any delay would require fresh primary legislation, and that – on top of the need to keep election administrators properly informed – places its own time limits on the window of decision.

(And that is before getting to the devolved administrations. Each of these has the power to delay their own elections, but in Wales the timing of the Police & Crime Commissioner ones are reserved to Westminster. Postponing these would also require fresh primary legislation, but that process can’t start until, at minimum, the Welsh Government has made its mind up about the Welsh Parliament vote.)

For all this bullishness, however, the Government is keeping the matter under review and delay has not been ruled out. There is also no sign that Westminster is exploring all of the options being explored by the Scottish Government, which include things like an all-postal election.

The consensus between Whitehall figures and Conservatives in local government seems to be that if the elections are put off, it cannot be for very long – perhaps just back into June, when the NHS is under that much less pressure and the vaccine rollout is more advanced.

Emergency proxies and postal votes: how the Government intends to ensure the local elections go ahead in May

19 Dec

As the nation staggers towards 2021, the forecast for next year looks somewhat v-shaped. The immediate aftermath of Christmas looks set to be dominated by another national lockdown (or whatever ‘Tier 4’ is). But after that, the vaccination programme holds out hope of a return to something like the old normal by the summer.

Which raises the question of what to do about the local elections, which are currently scheduled for May.

They have already been delayed once already, and both the Scottish and Welsh governments are making plans that include the power to delay their own elections yet again in the event that the public situation is not where we might want it to be when the day arrives.

The Government have taken a different approach, and no plans are being laid to prepare for a delay to the polls. Instead, ministers are taking practical steps to ensure that they can be conducted as safely as possible.

For starters, although practical and security considerations militated against an all-postal election, there is still for the moment a postal ballot for everyone who wants one. This will change if and when the mooted Electoral Integrity Bill hits the statute book and tightens up the relevant rules, but for now it is simple enough to get one and the parties, as well as local authorities, can and likely will run campaigns to make sure their voters are fully aware of this.

To make that slightly easier, the Government has also uprated local election expenses for the first time since 2014, lifting them to £806 per constituency (up from £740) and 7p per elector (up from 6p). This will give candidates a bit more to invest in online, postal, or other Covid-secure campaigning. In a recent written statement Chloe Smith, the Constitution Minister, acknowledged the pandemic as a reason for doing this now:

“The Government is also mindful that the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic may result in a greater emphasis on postal and digital campaigning ahead of May’s elections; this adds to the case for limits to be updated and uprated.”

Ministers are apparently looking at supplementing all of this this with provisions for ’emergency proxy voting’, in the event that someone who had intended to vote in person needs to self-isolate – this could apparently be done through secondary legislation – and by working to make sure that polling stations are Covid-secure.

This reluctance to delay the elections a second time is understandable. But given the obvious risk that face-to-face campaigning poses (especially to older voters and activists), there will likely be an electoral penalty to be paid if the worst happens and the Government has not left itself the means to postpone the polls. CCHQ must hope that this all-chips-on-May approach is a justified vote of confidence in the vaccination programme.

Amanda Milling: We’re delivering on our promises – and couldn’t do it without grassroots support

12 Dec

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

This time last year Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party secured a momentous election win. It was a win that gave us the majority we needed to end the gridlock in Parliament and move the country forward.

The fact that millions of people put their faith in us, many in seats that had been historically Labour, has allowed this Conservative Government to get the country moving forward by delivering on the promises we were elected on last year.

We promised to get Brexit done, and we left the European Union on the 31st January. We promised to take back control of our borders, and last month we passed the Immigration Act, which will see the introduction of a fairer points-based system with people coming to the UK on the basis of what they have to offer, not where they come from.

We promised to put more money into our NHS, and in March we passed the NHS Funding Act which has provided the biggest-ever cash boost to our frontline NHS services with £33.9 billion a year by 2023/2024. We promised to deliver 50,000 more nurses, and in one year there are over 14,800 more and 6,250 more doctors. We promised to recruit 20,000 police officers and in one year we’ve recruited nearly 6,000. We promised to invest more in education so that young people across the country can have a better start in life. That’s why we’ve delivered a £14.4 billion funding boost for schools over the next three years.

We promised to level up across the country and we’re investing in the biggest ever infrastructure project to link our country by rail and road. Our Towns Fund is providing 101 towns throughout the UK with money to improve their areas increasing jobs and investment.

Even with the fight against Covid-19 – which has seen us put in place a £280 billion economic support package to support jobs and livelihoods, provide over 30,000 ventilators to our NHS, deliver billions of items of PPE, conduct over 40 million Covid tests, and become the first country in the world to roll out a vaccine – we have remained determined to deliver on the promises we made to you last year.

However, none of this would have been possible without the many hours so many of you, our dedicated supporters, activists and members, put into the General Election campaign. In the cold, dark and rain you trampled hundreds of thousands of miles delivering leaflets and knocking on doors to get the Conservative message out there. You spent hours on the telephone asking people to vote.

Without your efforts on the doorstep and the endless nights of telephone canvassing, we would not have defeated Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

It’s why today the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are hosting a virtual members event to say thank you for your support and mark this momentous occasion one year on.
This is the biggest grassroots fundraiser we’ve ever held and you will be able to ask Johnson and Rishi Sunak questions directly on everything from the election to getting Brexit done and the unprecedented year 2020 has been.

This time last year none of us could have predicted a 2020 like the one we’ve had, but in the face of adversity we stepped up to the challenge and put in place measures to protect the NHS, jobs, and livelihoods. And with the roll out of the vaccine this week there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Next year we have a bumper crop of elections with local, Police and Crime Commissioner, mayoral and elections in Wales and Scotland.

So I hope you’ve got your delivery bags and boots to the ready as we get back out on the campaign trail, abiding by the latest Covid guidelines, working to get Conservatives in charge of your local services and strengthening our union with more Conservative voices in power.

There’s no denying these elections will be tough but I have no doubt that your hard work on the campaign trail will help. Conservative councils, mayors, and PCCs have a proven track record of providing good local services, securing vital investment to boost jobs, and keeping communities safe.

The alternative is Labour wasting taxpayers money and playing politics for their own personal PR rather than working to deliver for the people they represent.

Last year showed that if we work together as one team we can achieve great things. I look forward to joining you as we get out delivering leaflets, following the guidance, and hit the phones to get even more Conservatives into public office.

Paul Davies: Devolution has not been a disaster – but it does need a complete overhaul

20 Nov

Paul Davies MS is Leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament.

This week the Prime Minister started a debate about devolution, and I welcome his intervention. Not because I agree with him, but because it gives me the chance to outline how as Welsh Conservatives we can address the concerns that he and others have raised.

Just to be clear: devolution has not been a disaster. But it does need a complete overhaul.

That is a message I have heard loud and clear from our members who have been incredible in engaging with our election preparations. There has been an exciting buzz in the party that I have not detected for years, it has been refreshing.

And yes, I have been listening to the concerns of those who want to reverse the devolution settlement. I hear you, and I understand.

The concept of devolution isn’t the problem, and devolution doesn’t cause bad decisions and poor government. What holds this nation back is being saddled with successive Welsh Labour-led governments, on whose watch our economy has stagnated, public services have become unresponsive to the needs of the public, and whose ministers pathetically limp along with little energy, passion, or accountability for their performance.

That’s the real disaster, and its continuation is one we need to change, for all our sakes.

Usually when a government gets things wrong it’s the drop in the opinion poll ratings for that party which is the indicator. But what we are seeing in Wales is a growing number of people blaming devolution instead of the party who are solely responsible for getting things wrong in government.

It’s not just the poor performance of the Welsh Labour Government most highlighted during the pandemic which has affected peoples’ attitudes to devolution. Perversely, Labour administrations have actually undermined the devolution settlement itself by pushing for more and more powers for themselves – while failing to use those at their disposal more effectively. They are more interested in power than progress, and we need to make sure that the public understand this.

Trying to undermine Brexit, setting up an international relations department, and establishing a commission on justice are examples of a Welsh Labour administration greedy for powers and playing politics with the future of the United Kingdom.

During the pandemic they have further undermined the Union, often preferring to adopt a different approach than that over the border simply for the sake of being different. Labour has also fuelled community tensions and pandered to Welsh nationalists.

In next year’s election I will campaign for the opportunity to lead this nation, but it will be more than that. I will be campaigning for Wales to be at the heart of the United Kingdom. I believe in Wales and in the UK. I am not alone in feeling this, and it’s not just Conservatives who are passionate about being Welsh and British. We will respect the devolution settlement from day one, and work with the Prime Minister and the British Government to deliver for Wales, as a team.

I am excited about offering a radical, imaginative and ambitious alternative as we head into the May elections. If Labour win next year, with another five years running Wales into the ground, it will give them almost 30 years in government in Wales! That is not just unhealthy but a massive risk to our economic wellbeing and the future of our nation. I want to offer hope to families and communities the length and breadth of Wales who have been let down since 1999.

Wales deserves better. I will cut the number of ministers in half; we will freeze the number of civil servants; and I will set up an independent Office for Government Resilience and Efficiency to monitor our expenditure and provide oversight of our plans.

I will also, unlike all the other party leaders, respect the devolution settlement. More time spent delivering and no time spent asking for more power. We will also go further by ruling out more referendums on the constitutional settlement, and we’ll stop spending your money in non-devolved areas, such as justice, international affairs and immigration. We will scrap Labour’s efforts to devolve policing, justice, and elements of welfare.

Enough is enough. People elect politicians to get on with governing, and to do it with what they’ve got, and if they haven’t got the get up and go they should get up and clear out!

I will lead a government that is ambitious. I want an economy that grows, where Wales is a place to invest, grow and export. Over the past 20 years we have seen zero ambition by Labour, who have done nothing to grow our economy, but act as if it is London’s problem to solve. It isn’t, it’s ours. We’ll invest in infrastructure, facilitate investment in Wales, cut business rates and focus on skills. I want us to be wealthier and healthier.

In creating a healthier Wales, we need to be better in how we meet peoples’ needs. We spend billions on public services which struggle to reform, are sometimes poorly led, disconnected from each other and fail to put the individual at the heart of what they are about. Wales is not a big country, but we need organisations to work together in ways not done before.

Fundamentally it’s time for government to think and act differently. Today’s ministers have become stale. They look bored, with little appetite or ideas for the present, let alone the future. This will not change with the current party or those on the nationalist left who support them.

Only a Welsh Conservative Government can offer real change and hope to those whose lives have not been transformed, and who deserve so much more.

Calum Davies: Property rights are under assault in Wales – Conservatives must protect them

9 Aug

Calum Davies is Deputy Chairman of Cardiff Central Conservatives.

For those that do not keep to date with the quagmire of fringe arguments played on the turf of Welsh nationalists, you will have missed the traditional resurrection of the debate on Welsh language place names that seems to arrive each year.

Essentially, there are those out there who are passionate about protecting those places with Welsh language names from having their names changed to a name that is divorced from the linguistic heritage of the location.

For example, Cwm Cneifion in North Wales has become ‘Nameless Cwm’ and Fferm Faerdre Fach in the South is now called ‘Happy Donkey Hill’. But there are less concrete examples such Porth Trecastell and Lamor Llan or Traeth Dynion in Angelsey, which have respectively often become known as ‘Cable Bay’ and ‘The Creek’.

Thousands have signed petitions to prevent this, but how do you legislate against what people call it informally? The ‘Thought Police’ accusations write themselves.

Some, including the Welsh National Party (set up by an ex-Plaid Cymru politician) in Gwynedd, have proposed charging an “astronomical” £10,000 fee (their word) for the privilege of changing the place name as a deterrent.

That’s right! On top of all the fees involved in purchasing and maintaining a home, you should be made to pay thousands to choose the name of your own home to placate nosy nationalists who will likely have zero connection to your property and the area surrounding it.

If you have read these pieces, you will notice that you only see one side of the argument. I am hardly surprised, as to challenge this point of view will lead to the inevitable barrage of pro-independence trolling and accusations of being anti-Welsh language. Not only is the tone usually aggressive but so is the language: accusations of “linguistic cleansing” are deployed as if there was a high degree of predetermined malice behind the name changes.

Well, I write this as a Welsh-speaker who grew up in a house, in a village, near a town – all of which had Welsh names. I have no desire to see them anglicised and their names scrubbed from history. I love my country and my heritage.

But I also love my property rights. What business is it of government what name I give my house? What business is it of a stranger that does not know me and lives scores or, even, hundreds of miles away what I call my farm?

One can trace back property rights on these isles back to Magna Carta. But because busybodies in Bangor have a problem with me calling my hypothetical bungalow in Barry something that isn’t on the approved list, written by a certain elite in this country, I can’t!

It isn’t just the nationalist left that have been hunting down what many people feel is a fundamental part of a Western, liberal democracy. The socialist left – in the form of the Welsh Labour Government – have used the emergency coronavirus powers they have to obliterate the market confidence of private landlords.

Already gaining a reputation for making policy from a perception that the private rented sector is inherently problematic rather than a valuable source of housing for those who cannot afford to buy but do not need to unnecessarily use up resources in social housing, the Welsh Government has extended possession notice periods to six months (three for anti-social behaviour).

A landlord’s right to possession is enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights – but in order to reclaim their property, they must now wait several months to reclaim their property. With a court system already running a substantially large backlog before Covid-19, the delay will be intolerable.

Labour’s decision is understandable if you read their reasons, but the method chosen to do this is completely unfair to landlords. I have heard testimony of landlords left sofa-surfing now because of bad tenants refusing to pay rent for months even before the pandemic hit. This decision plays straight into their hands, rather than the vast majority of responsible landlords who have been unfortunate to let out their house to them.

This is not the only unintended consequence: you dent landlord confidence too much, they will leave the market, shrinking supply, lifting rent, pressurising social housing lists, and possibly increasing homelessness. The decision might also incentivise landlords to serve a possession notice in case they want to use it, perversely encouraging the very thing the Welsh Government want to avoid. Respecting property rights is not only an essential element of a free society, but a well-run one too.

So who should stand up against this assault? With the Senedd elections next year, it has been heartening to see the Welsh Conservatives ramp up the rhetoric on challenging the environment the left has created by abusing devolution. I believe if the Party focus their fire on what I have discussed here more support can be won, especially from those who don’t usually turn out at the devolved elections.

They are already on the right track: Darren Millar MS was right to call out Mark Drakeford, Labour’s First Minister, via the Gwydir blog for completely ruling out changing planning law to allow properties to move between business and residential status easily before it has even been tried. Yes, it is short-sighted when thinking about good policymaking, but it also infringes on the ability of free individuals and autonomous local governments to make decisions for themselves.

This is not news to those who have, given the Welsh left’s record over the years, come to the view that these parties prefer being worse than England than being like it. Throughout the pandemic, while the Conservative Government were at pains in restricting the liberty of the population and purposefully lifted them as soon as possible, the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru seemed to revel in keeping the people of Wales in place by maintaining those restrictions for weeks longer.

Conservatives have oft been accused by their own supporters of being too interventionist in people’s lives over the last few years. How better to remedy that, and strengthen our right flank ahead of a low-turnout election by making policy and campaigning for the fundamentally democratic and Conservative principles of freedom, especially when it comes to property?

We Welsh Conservatives often talk about reawakening the Welsh dragon. But remember what dragons are famous for protecting. Their castle.

The Tories’ hard pivot against the Cardiff Bay establishment reveals the power of Welsh devoscepticism

25 Jul

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.