Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.

Henry Hill: ‘Stronger together’ – Ministers put vaccine at the centre of its latest pro-Union push

28 Jan

Government puts pandemic response at centre of latest pro-Union push

Boris Johnson is to put the outstanding success that has been the British vaccine rollout at the centre of his pitch to Scottish voters on an upcoming visit to Scotland, the Daily Telegraph reports. It says:

“UK ministers hope that the nation’s world-leading delivery of coronavirus vaccines, and the development of the Oxford jab in Britain, will finally cut through with Scottish voters by offering a tangible example of the benefits of the Union.”

The First Minister has attacked the visit as ‘non-essential’, a charge dismissed by British ministers.

Matt Hancock also got in on the act this week, repeatedly saying in a press conference that the anti-coronavirus effort showed that the UK was “stronger together” – a likely candidate for the next referendum campaign slogan. The Herald reports that the Health Secretary particularly highlighted the way that the English ambulance service has supported its Scottish counterpart in recent days.

By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of ‘failing to provide seven-day vaccination’ after jab figures from Sunday were half that of the previous day. The First Minister blamed a ‘data lag’.

However, research has shown that Scottish voters want to hear about what Scotland offers the Union, not just what the Union gives to Scotland. If he wants to build a case that speaks to that self-respect, the Prime Minister needs to make sure it stresses that the benefits of Britain are a two-way street.

Meanwhile, Douglas Ross has rightly said that unionists would boycott any effort by the Scottish Parliament to throw an illegal or unofficial referendum on Scottish independence. Experts have apparently branded plans for such a vote as ‘deluded and pointless’, but Sturgeon needs the prospect of it to keep her increasingly restive forces in line in the event that the Prime Minister refuses to grant a Section 30 order.

Gove should beware Brown’s guidance on the Union

Meanwhile, Michael Gove has reportedly reached out to Gordon Brown to try and strengthen the Government’s efforts to keep the United Kingdom together. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has “compared notes” with the former Prime Minister, according to the Scotsman. Brown has recently warned that the UK risks becoming a ‘failed state’, and the paper says:

“Mr Brown is leading a review of Labour’s policy position on the constitution which could suggest a federal system with new powers for Holyrood and is expected to return its recommendations within 18 months. Such a model – which has been promoted by some within Scottish Labour for years – would see almost all powers apart from foreign policy and defence devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That option could be a third choice in any referendum.”

We can only hope that Gove, whilst polite, gave any such suggestion short shrift. Not only would it be absurd to put the option of an overall overhaul of the entire British constitution on a ballot paper issued to Scots alone, but we are well past the point when ‘more powers’ devolution had any credibility left as a unionist strategy – although it is telling that the Scotsman report undermines Brown’s efforts to pretend that his plans are not simply another tranche of ‘more powers’ thinking.

As I wrote for CapX this week, Brown actually has perhaps the strongest claim of any individual man to be the architect of the current constitutional calamity, and his analysis is very obviously built entirely around locating fault in the bits of the constitution he didn’t touch and directing scrutiny away from his disastrous legacy. Almost a year on from my clash with him in Newcastle last February, his answers are no stronger. A ‘British Isles Diplomatic & Defence Community’ is not what unionists should be fighting for.

Fortunately, we have reached the point where the tide is starting to turn against Brown’s thinking. The UK Internal Market Act was an important re-assertion of the prerogatives of the centre, and William Hague has noted (whilst being impeccably polite) that “constitutional tinkering won’t stop the Scottish nationalist juggernaut”. There’s no clever trick which will ‘solve’ the problem of the SNP. They need to be taken on and defeated.

Davies resigns, Davies returns

In case you missed it, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives stepped down this week after becoming embroiled in a scandal over alleged breaches of the Covid-19 regulations via ‘boozing’ in the Welsh Parliament.

Paul Davies and Darren Millar, a key ally and until recently Chief Whip, both denied wrongdoing but stepped down in the face of opposition attacks, media scrutiny, and a mounting backlash from the Tory grassroots. This was after he received the unanimous support of the Senedd group, apparently before they saw the official report into the incident and allegedly because they saw him as the only bulwark against his likely successor.

If true, that gambit failed and Andrew RT Davies is back in the driving seat in Cardiff Bay. A right-wing Brexiteer who is significantly closer to his activists on constitutional issues, he now has a few months to both take the fight to Labour and stave off a challenge on his unionist flank by Abolish the Welsh Assembly, which according to current polling is on track to enter the Welsh Parliament at the upcoming elections.

Scottish Parliament flexes its muscles in the Salmond scandal

Things continue to hot up in the battle between Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, as MSPs double down on their efforts to extract key evidence and the Scottish Government digs in to resist them.

The First Minister continues to insist that she did not mislead the Scottish Parliament, but Scottish Labour is now saying that her husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, should be investigated for perjury over his evidence to the official inquiry.

Even more significantly, MSPs have invoked legal powers “never before used” to compel Scottish prosecutors to hand over “documents obtained in the criminal investigation into Mr Salmond and passed to his defence” which they believe are key to getting to the truth. The deadline for the handover is tomorrow. Salmond has apparently been warned that he could be prosecuted if he referred to these documents.

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.

Matt Smith: An unenforcable travel ban. No NHS transmission data. Thirty thousand lost jobs. But where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales?

21 Oct

Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly.

Sir Thomas Hopkinson, co-founder of Cardiff University’s Centre for Journalism Studies, said the media is the “The most watchful sentry of the state”, for a “‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”.

With Covid-19 generating 115 pieces of Welsh legislation in six months and laws drafted within “a couple of hours”, Wales needs its fourth estate more than ever.

There are years in which nothing happened and days in which years happen. The “disappointing” decision by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, to impose a ‘hard Covid border’ preventing travel into Wales from ‘high Covid areas’ of England, Scotland’s central belt and Northern Ireland’ is in effect one of the latter.

Police Federation Wales has called the ban “unenforceable”.  Simon Hart deplores the suggestion West Walians are “on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas” for stirring ‘division and confusion’.  The ban triggered a round of competitive restrictions with Nicola Sturgeon eying up a Wales-style cross border travel ban for Scotland.

Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press conference last Friday that his cabinet was still discussing the best way forward. Later that afternoon, Bubble Wales published a leaked letter from the Confederation for Public Transport’s Welsh lead revealing ‘behind closed doors meetings’with officials about a “circuit breaker” beginning at 18:00hrs on Friday 23 October through to 00:01hrs on Monday 9 November.

Leaking continued into Saturday, with The Prydain Review reporting discussions with Welsh business leaders over closing clothing retail.  Paul Davies, the Conservative leader, criticised confusion “handling of this announcement is causing… especially to the most lonely in our society and businesses who are struggling to recover”.

Monday saw the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations, with the announcement of a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this coming Friday until 9th November, known as a ‘circuit breaker’ everywhere else. Drakeford’s “short, sharp, shock” to civil society will see pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops closing. Years Seven and Eight can return to school after the half term break. Gatherings outside of households are banned.

Avoiding this malady was why exiting lockdown was slower in Wales. Many wonder why the Welsh Government hasn’t gone for hyper-local ward by ward lockdowns. If the Welsh ministers can “firebreak” for 17 days, what is to stop them extending this? They have already declined to rule out a New Year “firebreak”.

The WHO Europe, the UK Government’s SAGE and Dr Roland Salmon, a former head of Public Health Wales, have cast doubt on the merits of this approach. Public Health Wales admits it doesn’t hold or received data on transmission rates – which begs the question: how is the pandemic response measured? And with claims of critical care being at capacity and ICU units reaching breaking point unraveling, many question the proportionality and rationale of the firebreak.

In a classic Cardiff Bay gaffe, Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, let on that firms may be eligible for UK Government support during lockdown. Welsh Government finances are better at locking down than helping businesses stay open. The Welsh firebreak seems like a lockdown made in Westminster.

Drakeford will now blame Downing Street for an economic crisis he has exacerbated. Wielding the visible hand of the state comes easily to the lockdown left, which believes that the gentleman in Cathays Park knows better. The First Minister also wants to consolidate the institutions of Welsh Government though “assertive devolution” – posturing to be different to Downing Street for the sake of it.

‘Devolve and forget’ renders devolved affairs into a province of the Welsh media. Yet BBC Wales is in the process of cutting 60 roles, while uncertainty hangs over dozens of posts at Media Wales, the publisher of the Western MailWales on Sunday and South Wales Echo heritage titles and WalesOnline.

‘Team Wales’ groupthink makes it harder to question to many Welsh establishment sacred cows. Yet this is no time for shrinking violets. At one point, nearly all media in Wales reported Bubble Wales’ leaky government special except BBC Wales. Welsh Conservative demands for a Senedd recall were overlooked. BBC Wales’ Politics Wales starmshow focused on Starmer and Gething, with only five minutes for Paul Davies.

Andrew RT Davies, the Shadow Health Minister, has called out the “down-right breathtaking arrogance” of Welsh ministers bypassing the Senedd. Welsh Labour MSs seem more interested in tweeting congratulations to Jacinda Ardern than scrutinising the liberticidal decisions of their own administration.

Daran Hill , a veteran Cardiff Bay Watcher, observed that Siambr-dodging ministers prefer government by briefing as it boosts the profiles and reach of hitherto unrecognisable politicians. Welsh ministers get soft-soaped while UK Government ministers face the full rigors of the national media.

They lack the openness or transparency to provide infection statistics on a ward-by-ward basis that are available in England. Only local authority figures are thought to be ‘sensibly used’, treating the public like children when information is important to sustain confidence  in rules.

Weak scrutiny lowers the bar. An anomaly in Welsh coronavirus law allows people from countries with high infection rates to visit low coronavirus parts of Wales (including via the Welsh Government-owned Cardiff Airport) while UK visitors are banned. Welsh students studying in England will be unable to return home and potentially miss Christmas.

Yet residents living near porous borders are not the playthings of politicians. Nor are livelihoods. The New Statesman has suggested ‘restrictions will only work if they are self-policed’. If the exhausted majority can’t afford to follow rules, compliance and civil obedience will become another casualty of the lockdown.

The hard man of devolution should savour the plaudits of the Cardiff condescendi and the nationalist comentariate. Drakeford now owns a legacy including 30,000 jobs lost in the first lockdown and the losses of those who will fall short before November.

A lacuna of scrutiny makes for bad policy. With power-gaming devocrats in control of the administrative state, governing by leak and pushing dodgy dossiers, Wales needs its ‘watchful sentries’ more than ever.