- Last month, Dominic Raab was third from top in our Cabinet League Table, on 73 per cent. This month, he drops by 21 places to fourth from bottom, coming in at 6 per cent and narrowly avoiding negative ratings. It’s one of the biggest falls ever in our table – almost on the scale of Theresa May’s dizzying fall from top of the table into negative territory in the wake of the bungled 2017 election.
- Meanwhile, Ben Wallace moves up from ninth, on 51 per cent, to fourth, on 64 per cent.
- The Westminster story of the last week or so has concentrated on Raab v Wallace – and this finding seems to show Conservative activists taking sides. Our take is that it’s more of a verdict on how British servicemen and the Foreign Office have reacted to events in Afghanistan; and on Wallace’s robust take on Joe Biden and, perhaps, Pen Farthing. The Defence Secretary seems to be morphing into a politician who, like the Prime Minister himself, is seen by many people outside Westminster as authentic.
- Boris Johnson drifts up from fourth from bottom on three per cent to seventh from bottom on 13 per cent.
- Otherwise there’s little change in the table, but it’s worth closing by having a look at Priti Patel. Last month, she was tenth from bottom on 26 per cent. This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent. As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent. You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall. Ours is: channel boats.
Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.
Flags are an important symbol of national identity. As a proud Welshman and a proud Brit, I feel very lucky to be able to fly the iconic Welsh dragon flag as well as the Union flag. These flags fly alongside each other outside the Welsh Parliament, a pairing which symbolises Wales’ place in the United Kingdom.
They stand side by side defiantly, as inside the building some separatists would like to see one of those flags taken down.
I found it strange that last week the Welsh Parliament’s Presiding Officer told Members of the Senedd that we should refrain from displaying flags in our backgrounds during virtual parliamentary sessions. This followed a contribution from one of my Conservative colleagues, who asked a question via video link. In the background, Janet Finch-Saunders MS had a Union flag on show. The Presiding Officer, Plaid Cymru’s Elin Jones, asked that Members observe a ‘flagless’ rule going forward.
Wales has two national flags. If members want to display them in their offices as proud symbols of national identity, then what is the harm? There should be no reason why the First Minister can’t display his beautiful Welsh dragon statue in his background, and no reason why Janet or any other Member can’t show off their Welsh and British national symbols.
Indeed, for many months other Members of the Senedd have displayed flags and national symbols in their backdrops during parliamentary sessions, including the First Minister.
Former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Elis Thomas, a giant of Welsh politics, used to wear pin badges of the Welsh flag, or a Welsh flag and a EU flag together, in the chamber and on Zoom. Though he and I come from vastly different places politically, I think it is right that he was never told to stop displaying symbols of the things he believed in passionately and campaigned on.
I fear that there may have been a double standard at work, and that the displaying of the Union Flag in particular was what provoked the Presiding Officer’s request for ‘flagless’ parliamentary sessions. I hope that is not the case.
I am saddened that, going forward, Members will not be allowed to show off their national symbols in their video link backgrounds. Since we have been holding virtual and hybrid sessions of the Welsh Parliament, there have been laughs, gaffes, bad lighting, technological problems and quirky backgrounds. Although there are many in the Senedd I disagree with, we’ve all been going through the same thing over the last year, and it’s been a profoundly human experience.
While I am keen to get everybody back into the chamber safely, MS’s backgrounds have been an interesting opportunity for expression, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the different flags, guitars on walls and messy tables.
I will continue to wear my Welsh flag face mask in and around the chamber of the Senedd. I’m proud of that flag and, like Dafydd Elis Thomas’ badges, it’s a symbol of what I believe in and what I campaign for.
Running the live blog tracking the elections in Scotland and Wales was something of an emotional rollercoaster. Early on, the Conservatives in both nations lost key targets. But in the end, they each ended up either delivering or matching their best-ever performances.
But whilst Douglas Ross’s achievement is near-universally acclaimed, and has cemented his authority in the Scottish party, there is disquiet amongst his Welsh colleagues about their own performance.
On the face of it, this is surprising. After all, at 16 MSs, the Welsh Conservatives have returned their largest-ever Senedd caucus. They have basically managed to win five of the seven seats that UKIP won in 2016, effectively consolidating the ‘unionist right’ in the Welsh Parliament whilst seeing off what looked like a strong challenge from Abolish the Welsh Assembly, who despite strong polling failed to return any MSs at all. Plaid Cymru are now definitively at the Senedd, as at Westminster, Wales’ third party.
The leadership is understandably keen to present this as a triumph. Likewise, some of the MPs are chipper, saying that suggestions the party under-performed “a total press fabrication”. They point out that the vote share is up and delivered a record number of Senedd seats, both of which are true.
So why are others in the party so unhappy? Why are the media headlines about ‘soul-searching’, not success?
In short, because it failed to do what it was trying to do, which was mobilise the mass of support that saw Boris Johnson deliver an exceptional haul of Welsh constituencies at the 2019 general election to change the political map of the Province.
Whilst they did unseat the Liberal Democrats in Brecon & Radnorshire, of the party’s Labour-held targets only Vale of Clwyd fell. Meanwhile Clwyd South, Delyn, Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham stayed red, despite having Conservative MPs at Westminster. It was the same for second-order targets Cardiff North and Gower, which had Tory MPs in the recent past.
Those defending the Conservative performance point out that in many cases the Labour MS was returned with fewer votes than the Conservative MP received in 2019, so these should be winnable seats.
But whilst this is true as far as it goes, it only highlights the other big strategic failing of the campaign. It was supposed to mobilise 75 per cent of the voters who back the Tories at the general election. In the end, one source said that “by my calculations we only achieved 52 per cent”. Once again, and for all the grand claims by the devocrats that it should be considered the pre-eminent voice of Wales, turnout for a devolved election failed to reach even half of registered voters, coming in at just 46.5 per cent.
This failure probably hurt Abolish too – it’s no point polling seven per cent if those voters sit it out on election day. And defenders of the campaign point out that it affects all parties.
But there is no denying that it hurts the Tories more. Last Thursday, Labour took 443,047 votes to the Conservatives’ 289,802; in 2019 it was 632,035 to 557,234. Tory MPs tell me their canvassers know voters who turn out not just for Westminster but for local elections, yet sit out the Senedd.
How to mobilise them is probably the biggest single challenge facing any Welsh Conservative leader. But it comes with risks. In order to woo devosceptic voters (not to mention see off Abolish) the Tories ran a strongly unionist campaign on the promise of “no more powers!” – which delivered their best-ever result. They have had to abandon their old ambition to win power via some sort of deal with Plaid. For the first time, even some of the MS group are devosceptic, in addition to several MPs and much of the activist base.
The long-term consequences of this have been disguised by Labour’s strong showing this time. But it heralds a future Senedd more polarised around the constitutional question. So long as Labour is led by a nationalist such as Drakeford, their only path to holding on to power if their position slips will be a deal with the capital-N Nationalists. Meanwhile there won’t be any shortcuts to power for the Conservatives, who will need to either win switchers directly from Labour or double-down on whatever strategy it takes to get their Cardiff-sceptic coalition to actually vote.
Holding more than a quarter of the seats in the Welsh Parliament is a good result. But polling suggested that the Tories and Abolish between them might at one point have got more than a third. Governing requires winning at least close to half. This election doesn’t create an obvious path to those sort of numbers, which may be why there is such grassroots disquiet at what is, objectively speaking, the Conservatives’ best-ever result at Cardiff Bay.
"You can stand on the border and step across into England and… see outdoor hospitality working whereas in Wales it's not working"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) April 18, 2021
The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.
The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom. Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.
There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.
At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.
That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.
At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.
That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.
Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.
Ant Pickles is co-author of State of the Union and a trustee of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
With little over five weeks to go until elections in Wales, the possible result is far from clear given the tightest polls since devolution began.
Welsh Labour’s political dominance over Wales has lasted over a hundred years, and might be beginning to slip. A recent poll showed that they could fall well short of a majority, and some have suggested this could be an opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives (projected to get a possible 19 seats) to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
That’s simply not going to happen. For a start, both sides have ruled it out in very stark terms.
The closest deal done between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives was in 2007, but that also included the Lib Dems, who at the time dashed the proposal with their conference failing to back it.
That deal was about pursuing a non-Labour option for Wales. But today the political culture, atmosphere, and rhetoric is a world away. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru has said there are ‘no circumstances’ under which he would consider a coalition.
Humour the idea of any coalition and the terms would be undesirable to Welsh Tories to say the least. For a start Price, who has an almost deity-like following amongst his most hardcore fans, simply couldn’t tarnish his own credentials by supporting a Welsh Conservative first minister.
Secondly, the Conservatives are now the only full throated pro-unionist party left in Wales as Welsh Labour flirts with ‘home rule’ and even independence, so the idea that a referendum or moves in that direction could be accepted by beef-farming Andrew RT Davies is about as likely as him becoming a vegan.
However, let’s say the shock result happens. Labour are left well short of a majority, and Plaid Cymru decide that it simply can’t abide by a further five years of Labour rule. What would a programme for government be? Plaid Cymru wants another referendum on the EU, many want drugs legalised, they are against nuclear power and want the Senedd to have a ‘veto’ on foreign policy.
Just about the only issues of agreement are the idea of a development bank and an agency for inward investment. The makings of a programme for government, it isn’t.
The other reality is Welsh Labour will most likely be the biggest party, even were this poll to become a reality. They might try and govern as a minority, but they’d have to achieve confidence and supply through other parties – and the most obvious is Plaid Cymru. When Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, said last month that ‘the United Kingdom is over’ it almost felt like coalition talks had already begun in open forum. His own ministers have spoken of ‘welcoming the debate on independence’ and that the ‘Union fails Wales’.
But could the condition for a Plaid-Lab deal be calls for a referendum? Yesterday Drakeford said for a referendum to happen, Plaid would need to win a majority, but with support within Welsh Labour growing in the direction of independence, it might well be their price worth paying. That would be a big wake up call for not only Labour HQ but Whitehall too.
The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile can see that there’s a gap that’s been vacated by Welsh Labour on core values of identity as the online culture wars have swayed many on the left. Being Welsh and British, tapping into region investment inequality, and campaigning in plain language are all issues that have made some voters ponder their vote for the first time.
Add to this the most important point: the pandemic has created unprecedented focus on devolution and who makes decisions and where. This election is the first test of voters’ feelings about the pandemic, and surprise polls could be just the start of things to come.
But should the poll published this week come to fruition, don’t expect a Plaid-Tory coalition, it simply isn’t happening.
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.
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.
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.
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.