A Fresh Agenda

Christopher Harries

Opposition in politics can be a difficult act, with fortunes often dependent on factors beyond the control of the politicians, advisors and strategists.

That famous quote on the fortunes of a government “Events, dear boy, events” attributed to the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan could also apply to the determiner on the success of an opposition. 

When thinking about the Welsh Conservative Party, it is fair to say that Macmillan’s quote has historically been applicable. In the run-up to the last election for the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Conservative Party campaign was blown off course by uncertainty over the fate of the Steelworks in Port Talbot and an insurgent party in the form of UKIP.

With the next election for the Welsh Parliament looming history could be repeating itself?

Events like the coronavirus pandemic have buffeted the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Conservatives. Polling earlier in the year had support for the Welsh Conservatives at a record high, with the party projected to win twenty-six seats in the Welsh Parliament.

Recent polling, however, has seen the Welsh Conservatives polling figures that would see gains albeit not to level that would see Labour supplanted as the leading party in the Senedd. While the party could haemorrhage support to the anti-devolution Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party

It appears that the Coronavirus pandemic has asserted devolution in the mind of the Welsh electorate, reinforcing responsibility and opposition. At the same time, the Welsh Conservatives fortunes have been hampered by events in Westminster and the rise in support for the insurgent party hostile to devolution.

The previous impact of external events and insurgent parties upon the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Conservatives poses the question of how the Conservative group should proceed.

Instead of the conventional Welsh Conservative approach to opposition in Cardiff Bay, the party should take a different approach. The Devolution Revolution outlined in the last few months could be a foundation to build on. 

Paul Davies MS could use the coming weeks and months to outline a new approach for governance in Wales post-pandemic. The reconciliation of the devosceptic Conservative support base with political reality is essential for the success of the campaign. 

Reconciliation requires more than just words, in an article for Conservative Home Davies MS stated:

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

Despite this statement, the article failed to convey an appreciation that devoscepticism is more than just dissatisfaction with perpetual Labour governance. Fundamentally the concept of devolution is in itself the problem, as such a set up is incompatible with the unitary nature of the United Kingdom. 

Earlier in the article, Davies MS asserted that “devolution has not been a disaster. But it does need a complete overhaul.” 

If a complete overhaul is necessary, are we not to infer then that this manifestation of devolution has indeed been a disaster?

So to reconciliation, the group under Paul Davies MS have talked about features of Cardiff Bay like the commission budget, saying no to further devolution of powers and measures like a civil service reform. 

Davies MS must be prepared to go further in the course of the Devolution Revolution. A localism agenda to enhance decision making at the local authority level, creating metro mayors for the parts of Wales too often overlooked by the devolved parliament like North, Mid and West Wales.

Davies MS should be mindful of the famous quote ‘Like Saturn, the revolution eats its children‘ by Jacques Mallet du PanWith an insurgent anti devolution party on the flank, it could be that the new status quo is overwhelmed by the forces unleashed by the Devolution Revolution.

Short of abolition, divesting the Welsh Parliament of competencies should be the ambition of the Devolution Revolution. To localise certain powers and where appropriate restore competencies to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. 

This approach fits with the principle of localism and ends the nation-building that has been the primary focus of the last twenty years.

Such an approach also reflects the reality that the public is not yet at the point of abolition. 

While the public may not be at the point of abolition, it is clear there is apathy to the institution, you only have to look at the turnout for the devolved elections. So effort must be made to engage with those apathetic of the devolved institution.

The Welsh Conservatives should take the opportunity to redefine the accepted rules of opposition and ignore the guidance of the devophile chattering class. This approach would allow the Welsh Conservatives to set a localism agenda, focused on helping build a foundation for recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Welsh Conservatives should take the opportunity to redefine the accepted rules of opposition in Cardiff Bay and with it the devolution settlement. 

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