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.

Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the first time

4 Dec
  • Whatever happens to Liz Truss at the next reshuffle, whenever it happens, she will go into it as one of the small number of Cabinet members past and present who have topped our Members’ Panel League Table.  The International Trade post sends its occupant out to bat for Britain and away from domestic political turmoil.  The freedom-orientated and ever-combative Truss is making the most it.
  • The key to her achieving pole position is not so much her tiny ratings rate (from 73 per cent to 75 per cent, but Rishi Sunak’s own small fall (from 81 to 75 per cent).  There may be some nervousness at the margins from respondents about future tax rises.
  • Ben Wallace is up from ninth on 40 per cent to third on 66 per cent.  That undoubtedly reflects his success in winning a multi-year defence settlement at a time when other departments have only a single-year one – with enough money to at least get by.  And the former soldier seems a better fit in his department than some other Cabinet ministers.
  • Michael Gove is down from fourth on 54 points to fifteenth on 30 points. That will be a consequence of his support for tough anti-Covid restrictions.
  • The Priti Patel bullying claims – our reading of Sir Alex Allen’s report into them is that it concluded she should resign because she may have broken the code unintentionally – have made next to no difference to her rating, which has dropped by a marginal three points.
  • And Boris Johnson?  He is down by eight points and hovers just below the relegation zone.  Matt Hancock evaded it this month by a sliver.

Luke Springthorpe and Alan O’Kelly: If you cherish the United Kingdom, join the #LoveOurUnion campaign

30 Nov

Luke Springthorpe is Executive Director, and Alan O’Kelly is Director of Operations, at Conservative Progress.

Despite holding a “once in a generation” (Alex Salmond’s words, not ours), the Scottish National Party are preparing to renew their demands for a second independence referendum.

Ever since the 2014 Scottiish referendum the SNP have run a concerted and aggressive campaign to re-run that referendum. This campaign has been marked by a specific attempt to turn neighbors against each other, setting up a narrative of Scotland versus England.

Alongside this has been an attempt to craft a narrative where Scotland is “different” from the rest of the Union, to such an extent where it cannot be governed by the same institutions. This has been all the more apparent with the emergency response to Covid, where there has at times been an almost farcical attempt to adopt virtually the same measures as England, but with the slightest of changes to the language used or categories for tiers.  The end result hasn’t been a more effective response, but confusion for people who travel between various parts of the UK, not to mention businesses reliant on clear and easy-to-understand legislation.

In Wales, too, there is an increased focus on the Union as the crisis has enflamed relations between Westminster and Cardiff Bay, and as advocates of independence square off with a growing anti-devolution movement.

As a result of this nationalist narrative, a recent YouGov poll indicated that 49 per cent were not concerned should Scotland leave the Union – the first time less than half of the population of England and Wales had indicated such a preference.

The nationalists have had the run of the airwaves for too long. Supporters of our United Kingdom, by contrast, are often much less loud about our own beliefs. It is less trendy – not to mention more difficult – to be enthusiastic about the status quo than the radical agenda offered by the separatists, even though the promises of the latter are illusory and it would inflict huge damage on both Scotland and the rest of the country.

It’s time for unionists to push back. Conservative Progress has set up the Love our Union (LoU) campaign, which seeks to highlight the deep political, cultural, and economic ties which bind the home nations together as well as cherished shared institutions such as the Armed Forces.We are building a grassroots campaign that will aim to highlight these benefits and discuss how we can strengthen our Union.

The highlight of the first phase of this campaign takes place today with our first annual #LoveOurUnion day. The Love our Union day will ask everyone who supports the Union to stand up and demonstrate this visibly, loudly and proudly.

Of course, with the times we are currently in, this will be a virtual event. But, all being well, we hope to host future Love Our Unions days with events & rallies across the country.

We are asking everyone to Tweet and to post on Facebook and Instagram with their support to get the #LoveOurUnion hashtag trending. We want to show in no uncertain terms that support for the United Kingdom – together – remains strong. We also want any waverers to understand why it’s worth fighting for and, in time, to join us as passionate advocates for this country and its future.

Over the course of the day, we will be tweeting out support from MPs, MSPs, and MSs in support of the Union. We have reached out to a range of organizations, including many of the Conservative Friends of groups, who will be also showing their support.

This will be our biggest event of this campaign to date, but over the last few months we have run a range of others exploring the future of the Union. The first event was our ‘Four Points’ event, with leaders of the voluntary party across the country and the Chair of the parliamentary Conservative Union Research Group, Robin Millar MP – as well as ConHome’s own Henry Hill!

Second was our ‘Love Our Union: Scotland’ event, with Douglas Ross MP, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Third was our ‘Love Our Union: Wales’ event, which saw Paul Davies, the leader of the Tories in the Senedd, as well as Millar and Glyn Davies, the Welsh Conservative chairman, in conversation with guests.

In 2021, we will be moving the campaign up a gear, with more events focusing on the cultural, defence, and other ties that bind us together. We will be doing everything we can to support the Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland and Wales ahead of elections in May. All of this will lead up to our annual conference, which will focus on the future of the Union and bring together hundreds of activists, politicians, and others to discuss how we can further strengthen the United Kingdom.

Both of us are excited about this campaign, and believe that together we can help demonstrate the huge support and emotional connection to the Union amongst the British people.

We would like to thank those who have already supported today by submitting quotes and videos, which we will be releasing during the day. We also look forward to thanking many more who we hope will tweet their own videos and messages during the day! Just don’t forget to use the #LoveOurUnion hashtag, as we will be emailing our 16,000 supporters with some of the highlights.

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.

Our Cabinet League Table: Sunak is still top, and Johnson is back in positive territory – just

2 Nov
  • Rishi Sunak’s favourability rating is down from 81.5 per cent to 81.1 per cent – in other words, by so infinitesimal a margin as to make no difference.  In other polls, his soaring rating would be driven by the subsidies that the Treasury is paying out.  In this one, his resistance to lockdowns will be a significant contributor to his popularity.
  • Boris Johnson was marginally in negative territory last month (-10 per cent) and marginally in positive terroritory this month (13 per cent).  We can think of no reason why, given the panel’s decision to mark him down, the late September finding should have been in the red and the October one in the black (or vice-versa had it been case).
  • Matt Hancock slides a bit further into the minus ratings, Gavin Williamson a bit back towards the plus ones.  Liz Truss is up a little and Priti Patel by more, having had a sticky summer over the channel crossings.  All in all, it’s much of a muchness – with Douglas Ross down by about 25 points, now that his Party Conference coverage has faded.
  • These ratings were taken at the end of last week, before the Prime Minister’s emergency press conference on Saturday.  We suspect that it would have lowered his rating and that of the Cabinet; you may disagree; perhaps we will hold a snap survey later this week to find out…

Our Cabinet League Table. The Prime Minister falls into negative territory.

3 Oct
  • It’s not unprecedented for a Conservative Prime Minister to fall into negative territory in our monthly Cabinet League Table.  In April last year, Theresa May set a new record of scoring the lowest rating it has ever recorded – at -74. Compared to that, Boris Johnson’s -10.3 this month looks tame.
  • Nonetheless, it’s a rotten springboard from which to vault into Party Conference as it begins today.  As we wrote yesterday, it reflects weariness with curbs, frustration with what seem to be fluctuating and arbitrary rules, a sense that Ministers at the top of Government are divided – and a certain frustration with the Prime Minister himself.
  • Liz Truss up to second in the table, from 62 per cent to 70 per cent.  Dominic Raab and Michael Gove’s scores are both down but, with Steve Barclay and Truss, they are the only Cabinet Ministers to clear 50 per cent.  As recently as last December, the entire Cabinet was in the black, with 18 of its members above that 50 per cent rating.
  • Matt Hancock joins Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick and Johnson in negative territory. Amanda Milling clambers out of it (just about).  On a happier note, Douglas Ross more than doubles his rating from 26 per cent to 61 per cent: his aggression and energy in Scotland are getting noticed.
  • And finally: the Prime Minister has been low, though not nearly by this much, in the table before – shortly before he resigned as Foreign Secretary.  He bounced back then, and could do so again.  Once again, we make the point that this is much the same panel as gave him a 93 per cent rating after the last election.

Roger Evans: Wales could be a land of opportunity for prospective Conservative politicians

25 Sep

Roger Evans is a former barrister and Deputy Mayor of London under Boris Johnson.  A much-in-demand public speaking coach, he has unrivalled experience in candidate coaching and mentoring.

It isn’t just the keen eyed reader of the property sections who should be looking west to Wales. The Principality provides an unrivalled opportunity for Conservative candidates too.

The last 20 years has been turbulent for the Welsh Conservatives. Back in 1997 the party effectively ceased to exist at Westminster, having suffered a complete wipe-out in the polls. Since then, Welsh Conservatism has rebounded with remarkable strength. Keen observers of the last general election will have spotted how the once insurmountable bastion of Welsh Labour has started to crack.

This week has seen yet another Welsh Barometer opinion poll putting the conservatives in strong contention for next year’s Welsh Parliament elections. On this poll and the others before it, the Conservatives are set to make substantial gains across Wales. However, the Welsh Conservatives have so far selected very few candidates – even sitting Welsh Parliament members have yet to be re-adopted.

The Welsh Party review, Building on Success, Strengthening the Welsh Conservative Party, makes it clear that the candidate’s process is going to re-start with a new Welsh Candidates list. CCHQ in London is taking over the process of candidate approval, with a view to making the Welsh Conservatives more diverse and the candidate process more similar to that used for Westminster. With the elections looming, the Covid-paused candidate selection process is set to be re-opened ahead of Christmas.

The review stresses that they are keen to have candidates with a strong Welsh link. For those with such a connection over the border in England, Wales could be a land of opportunity. With no equivalent elections in 2021 save for Scotland and London, it will be a long wait until the next General Election.

Welsh Parliament seats largely follow the boundaries of their Westminster counterparts, and the crown jewels of Welsh opportunities are all still up for grabs, including such Westminster-held seats as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire to the Vale of Glamorgan. Many of these seats saw a huge rise in the Conservative vote in 2019.  Added to this, there are the six seats the Conservatives took in North Wales at Westminster last year up for grabs too.

The even better news for aspiring candidates is that the Welsh Parliament uses the additional member system, meaning that there are even more opportunities on the top-up list. The polls currently indicate that the Welsh Conservatives will make strong gains here.

As the London Assembly has demonstrated, a career started in regional government is increasingly a pathway to senior ministerial office. The London Assembly has cultivated Ministers including Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly, and Kit Malthouse. Wales’ Cardiff Bay Parliament boasts far greater powers than the London Assembly has.  Huge swathes of public policy are now dealt with in Cardiff, from health to planning.

Moreover, at their present rate of growth it is only a matter of time before the Conservatives lead a Welsh Government. Could this be the election where we see Paul Davies as Welsh First Minister?  We’ll know by early May next year. One thing is for sure, candidates at this Welsh Parliament election may well go on to serve in a Welsh Government.

If you are interested in discussing your political career, then contact me.

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.