South Wales Central Conservatives’ rejection of former AM Jonathan Morgan as a regional list Senedd candidate last week outraged the Welsh political bubble. Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians quickly took to social media to condemn the decision.
They saw the rejection of this Cardiff Bay consensus politician as a visible flash of something they fear is happening off-stage. The rise of devoscepticism within the Welsh Conservative Party.
Immediately prior to his rejection, Jonathan Morgan was asked whether he would support the abolition of the Senedd in a hypothetical referendum. As Labour MS Lee Waters pointed out, pro-devolution Morgan clearly gave the wrong answer.
Retiring MS David Melding later confirmed, while bemoaning the political fate of a man widely seen as his anointed successor, that the abolition question was the only direct policy question asked of Morgan.
Both men understand the significance of this question. It is a litmus test. As one retired Tory agent told me, “The last such litmus test regularly applied at Tory selections was on the subject of EU membership. Its result is Brexit.”
Interestingly, according to the BBC, another Party source said of the questioning: “That’s a question that comes up at various selections. This isn’t a new question.”
If that is the case, the hard devosceptic faction is already more advanced inside the Welsh Conservatives than the Party’s leaders and opponents fear.
But this is only the beginning.
In the coming months and years following the May election, there will be a potent debate within the Welsh Conservatives on the subject of devolution. How long it will last and how damaging it will be are questions that can only be answered by those willing to argue for the futile cause of yesterday’s men, the Tory devophiles.
For my part, I hope it will be relatively quick and that individuals do not make the same mistake as the doomed pro-EU faction. For our Party’s sake and for the sake of their political careers.
It is my view that devosecptiscism is the inescapable future of the Welsh Conservatives for the following reasons:
1 The membership is bigger and better organised
The grassroots have always been firmly devosceptic. But in the New Labour years they were a small, demoralised and disorganised body. This allowed the Medling-Bourne devophile faction in the Bay to gradually ratchet up pro-devolution policy to the extent where, to quote Darren Millar, “…you could take paragraphs from a Welsh Conservative manifesto and slot them randomly into documents by Plaid or Labour.”
Providing an insight into this dynamic (from the pro-devolution perspective) is current Welsh Conservative Deputy Chairman and former Wales Office SpAd Tomos Davies. In 2008, he wrote:
Whilst the absence of a strong Welsh Conservative organization and an active Welsh membership has often been attributed as a reason for the Conservative Party’s electoral demise in Wales, this lack of organizational presence and active grassroots may yet be the party’s saving grace in future.
Whilst a dogmatic and participatory membership in England have frustrated attempts to modernise and renew the Conservative Party, the absence of a Conservative tradition in Wales and a diminishing and un-awkward membership may yet present the opportunity for the Welsh party to be bolder than her Scottish and English counterparts, affording the opportunity to renew and re-invent the party’s discourse along unashamedly and unequivocal Welsh lines.
Unfortunately for the small but influential handful of Tory devophiles, the membership has steadily grown in the last decade and long dormant associations have been re-activated.
The high stakes 2019 leadership contest has also boosted the ranks more recently. Given that most of these members were joining the Party to vote for Boris Johnson to settle a constitutional question in favour of British sovereignty, it’s a good bet that they are at least as instinctively devosceptic as the existing membership.
Potential Welsh Conservative candidates may be beginning to realise that sounding devosceptic is a surefire way to increase the probability of victory at selection meetings. Indeed, as MP hopefuls completed to be the most eurosceptic choice at membership hustings, future Welsh Conservative candidates are likely to find themselves pushing each other to take harder and harder devosceptic positions.
The anti-devolution candidate won’t always win, as was the case with eurosceptics, particularly in contests where participation is small and local or personality factors come into play. But the potent and easily attained advantage it provides will be irresistible to the ambitious. And the ambitious are always the future.
2. 20 years of devolution have vindicated sceptics’ fears and made fools its unionist proponents
There is no devolution settlement. Only a cycle of powers devolved, misused and further powers demanded. It is a process and not an event. A process that only goes one way. Destination: separation. Nation-building as the means of power consolidation for devolution’s new public sector, media and NGO managerial class.
Unionists in Wales can now see the hideous power wielded by this anti-UK emergent establishment. And have witnessed the near fatal damage that their fellow devocrats in Scotland have already inflicted on the Union.
The Welsh Conservatives foresaw this. Their tragedy is that they did not have the strategic patience to capitalise on it. They instead allowed a small clique of innovators on their liberal wing to persuade them that the threat wasn’t there.
The tragic decade-long story can be briefly told by quoting three manifestos.
Labour’s now risible 1997 manifesto:
“A sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Wales and Scotland. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.
“The Welsh assembly will provide democratic control of the existing Welsh Office functions. It will have secondary legislative powers and will be specifically empowered to reform and democratise the quango state.”
The uncannily prescient Conservative 1997 manifesto for Wales:
“We will not put the jobs and livelihoods of the people of Wales at risk by setting up a new tier of government that would inevitably demand more powers over tax, spending and legislation.
“A Welsh Assembly would create uncertainty over the future of Wales in the Union.”
And in 2007, a foolish Welsh Conservative Assembly manifesto:
“More and more people believe devolution is necessary for a strong Britain. Welsh Conservatives believe this too, despite our fears in 1997. We freely acknowledge that devolution has not weakened Britain.”
Compare the naivety above, written on the very eve of the SNP’s first major victory, with the wisdom of William Hague, then Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, a full decade earlier:
“(Devolution) would lead to widespread disillusionment and bitterness, create a constitutional situation unstable and unsustainable in the future, and severely weaken and undermine the unity of the United Kingdom.”
The Party’s future is devosceptic not only because devophiles have been proved decisively wrong, nor because they can no longer claim devolution is safe for the Union; but because they have nothing left to say.
Their solution to devolution’s problems, such as the lack of accountability and demands for more powers drowning out normal politics, has always been the same. One more transfer of a package of powers from Westminster to the devolved governments.
That folly has been tested to failure by irresponsible Conservative Secretaries of State in Westminster, who desperately hoped that more powers for devolved governments would create a lasting settlement (or perhaps cynically tried to buy time so that future politicians have to deal with the growing constitutional mess).
Pro-devolution Conservatives don’t have the political capital left to again persuade unionists that one more heave will solve the problem.
Only David Melding persists, alone and unheard, driven to extremes by his thesis, and now advocating for the fantasy of a sovereign Wales in an EU-style Union of the British Isles.
With no reality-based solutions to devolution’s problems apparent from its proponents, they are on the defensive. The ‘devolution revolution’ policy is organised inertia, a safe space for a Tory Senedd group that can go no further down the devolutionary road but cannot yet bring itself to take the other path. The initiative is passing to devosceptics.
Expect to see arguments for policies involving less devolution, not more, gaining traction in the next few years – even among senior Welsh Conservative politicians.
3. Successful devolved elections require a core vote strategy
Devolved elections have lower turnout than national elections. Many Welsh Conservative candidates will tell you (whether you ask them or not) that if those who vote Tory at general elections would only come out to cast their ballot at Senedd level, they would win their seat.
They are not wrong. At the 2010 general election Welsh Conservatives polled 383,000 votes, but in the 2011 Assembly election they polled 237,000 votes. In the 2015, 2017, 2019 general elections they polled 408,000, 529,000 and 557,000 votes respectively. But in the 2016 Assembly election only polled 216,000 votes. This is a colossal gap.
Basic electoral strategy dictates that in low turnout elections the primary objective of policy development and messaging is to motivate your existing supporters to vote.
The Welsh Conservatives have not attempted this approach at an Assembly election since 1999 at the height of Blair’s popularity. Instead they have repeatedly sought to persuade traditionally non-Tory segments of the Welsh middle class, particularly rural Welsh speakers and sophisticated urbanites, to vote Welsh Conservative through a soft nationalist and liberal policy offer and communications strategy.
This has obviously failed as an electoral approach, but was often justified by the leadership as requisite for another strategic imperative; the need to make the Welsh Conservatives saleable as a coalition partner to Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.
Now that rainbow coalition is even further from being a viable proposition than ever, there is no case whatsoever to be made for the Bourne strategy, a relic of a particular political moment, limping undead into the future.
In this era of identity politics, of wokeism and the growing independence movement, Welsh Conservatives trying again to chase non-socialist Plaid voters and the liberal bourgeois would raise questions around the very sanity of their decision makers.
If the Party seeks to maximise its electoral success, it will turn toward its base.
This base is devosceptic. 71% of those with a preference for the Conservatives at the 2021 election would vote to eradicate the devolved institutions in a referendum.
If the Party is going to excite them and get them out to vote, it’s going to need more than the confusing, uninspiring, bubble-born phrase ‘devolution revolution’. A phrase which denotes an essentially status-quo policy.
The current Senedd group is unlikely to produce an openly devosceptic manifesto or back a bold devosceptic strategy in time for 2021. But their failure to do so, particularly if Abolish wins seats, will be understood as a major factor behind another disappointing result.
At some point, whether before or after 2021, there will be a realisation among influential Welsh Conservatives that a second-order election with lower voter turnout, lower voter information and lower stakes, necessitates a strategy of audacious, repetitive, salient messaging to Tory voters. Due to the nature of the Conservative base, this is almost certain to be devosceptic in nature.
4. There can be no ‘Welsh Conservative Government’ and everybody knows it
When faced with devosceptic opinions, there is a stock answer given by the leadership. It goes like this: “Yes, devolution hasn’t worked for 20 years, but that’s Labour’s fault. We can make it work with a Welsh Conservative Government.”
As Henry Hill has pointed out, this is a distinction without a practical difference. But it is also a dishonest position that diminishes those who trot it out.
Devolution is not just the Welsh Government, but the Senedd. And the Senedd’s electoral system is semi-proportional. Even Labour has never won an outright majority. A Tory who tells you that the Welsh Conservatives can win outright is lying to you, disrespecting you and insulting your intelligence.
The Additional Member System incorporates first past the post constituency results with the D’hondt method for allocating the 20 regional seats. In English, this means that the more constituencies you win, the fewer regional members you get.
The Conservative vote is fairly evenly spread across the five Senedd regions, meaning that their road to a majority has to be based on constituencies only. This would be extremely tough even if it was just a first past the post election with the 40 constituency seats; in that scenario the Senedd Conservatives would need to improve on the successful 2019 Westminster tally. But with the Additional Member System it is impossible.
To win an outright majority, the Welsh Conservatives would need to increase their number of constituency wins from 6 to 31. This means that to get to a majority of just one, their ‘must win’ seats would include Llanelli, Torfaen, Caerphilly, Neath, Ceredigion, Newport East, Ogmore and Islwyn. When they’ve never even won the Vale of Glamorgan at an Assembly election, one can see that the suggestion of winning all those seats is beyond absurd.
And there will be no coalition, not that the suggestion of one would assuage devosceptic concerns about devolution in any case.
Plaid Cymru has ruled out a coalition with the Welsh Conservatives. Anyone who doubts that their membership would severely punish a leader for reaching out to Paul Davies should look at the wave of atavistic anger provoked when YesCymru suggested letting Conservatives into the Indepence movement.
There is no scenario, other than being the larger partner in a coalition, that would be more preferable to Plaid than holding the Senedd balance and forcing a Labour minority government to dance to its tune.
Besides, Paul Davies, in his leadership campaign, promised that every Conservative member would get to vote on a future coalition deal with any potential partner, i.e. Plaid Cymru. This means, of course, that negotiating a deal would be impossible because none of Plaid’s constitutional demands would be acceptable to the membership.
Paul Davies would also likely foresee that any internal Tory referendum on the Plaid deal would not only result in a ‘No’, but would be extremely costly for him and anyone on the losing ‘Yes’ side. And he may also foresee that merely providing an opportunity for a ‘No’ campaign to exist would force disparate devosceptics to organise on a Wales-wide scale and accelerate their ascendency.
There will be no Tory majority, and there will be no Tory-Plaid deal.
There is a dawning realisation across the Party that the Welsh Conservatives cannot win. That devolved politics is a cul-de-sac for the Party.
The implication of this for the devolution debate in the Conservative Party is simple. Conservative MSs point to every problem with the Welsh Government, but have no viable solution. They can’t win. They can’t change anything. So solutions will be sought elsewhere.
For example, if the Welsh Conservatives are right about the horrors of Betsi Cadwalladr (and they are), why is their suggested solution to stop this human suffering one that they know is impossible? If lives matter more than the devolution experiment, why aren’t they leading calls for the NHS to be a UK reserved power?
Difficult questions are coming, and nobody is going to be fobbed off with the shallow lie that a Welsh Conservative government is possible.
5. Conservative MSs have been a bad advert for devolution
With a handful of exceptions on either side, the quality of Welsh Conservative AMs and now MSs is perceived within the Party to be substantially lower than that of MPs. And given that every MS is in the shadow cabinet, many have the unfortunate affliction of being haughty despite their limited ability.
The quality issue has been subtly recognised by the Welsh Conservative board, who recently brought in measures to strip some important incumbency rights for MSs wishing to stand again as candidates. Regional MSs are now forced to compete on an equal footing for their top spots on the party list with up to 8 others.
Welsh Conservatives openly despair about the competence of Labour ministers. But many secretly worry, “would my local Tory MS be any better?” Some whisper that they could even be worse.
Welsh Conservatives condemn the Welsh Government for doing things differently from England for the sake of it. So many are perplexed when the Tory MS group repeatedly make their own suboptimal policies with a handful of junior staff, thus rejecting policies developed by well qualified, high ability teams at the centre of the world’s oldest and most successful political party.
Welsh Conservatives criticise Labour and Plaid for calling for more powers to be devolved and for their attempt to assert Welsh Government primacy over that of the UK Government in Wales. Yet, within the Conservative Party, MSs want more powers devolved from the centre to Wales. And even demand that their leader is set above MPs made ‘leader of the Welsh Conservative Party’.
Perhaps with a new intake, the Welsh Conservative MS will have a greater talent pool, stop differentiating themselves from UK Conservatives, and stop agitating to wreak devolutionary damage on the Party constitution. Until they do, their MSs will be a highly visible advert within the Party for devolution’s failure.