‘Leading’ Political Commentary

Christopher Harries

The aspiring devocrat, London based Theo Davies- Lewis has returned to his seemingly favourite subject the direction of the Welsh Conservative Party.

It is a subject that the seemingly self-appointed leading Welsh political commentator has harped on about for a while. Aside from an internship with a Conservative member of the Senedd, Mr Davies-Lewis does not appear to have had much involvement with the Welsh Conservative party. Thus the leading political commentator has a limited understanding of dynamics within the party.

The Welsh Conservative Party that he refers to is the Conservative Group within the devolved institution. The group indeed came to review its approach to devolution, an evolution from opposition to acquiescence to facilitation. Such acceptance of devolution has not extended to the party membership, who at best are apathetic of the institution. 

Polling of conservative voters would suggest that rather than apathetic there is actual hostility to devolution. As noted previously, seventy one per cent of people who intend to vote Conservative in the constituency vote would support abolition in a referendum. This sentiment is hardly some new trend within the grassroots. Instead, it has been present from the outset but neglected from representation in the ranks of candidates for some time.

The leading Welsh political commentator continued discussing recent developments within the party:

‘But where has that Welsh conservatism gone in more recent years? Paul Davies has spoken of a radical change of direction — and some Senedd candidates have made their outright anti-devolutionism clear. To put it mildly, as Mr Melding does so well, the recent Tory Senedd candidate selection process was “not kind to liberal Conservatives”, with experienced and moderate politicians being left off key lists.’

Every leader seeks to hone a message that appeals to the broadest possible audience. The change of direction under Paul Davies MS aims to reach out to those voters who are apathetic of devolution. The low turnout for devolved elections means that there is a sizeable electorate disengaged from the process and so it makes sense to try to appeal to those voters.

To understand the selection process, one must look past the devolution issue. The individuals that David Melding MS alluded to were victims of internal politics. The devolution issue was not the cause of their woes. Suzy Davies MS acknowledged this, while the question put to Mr Jonathan Morgan was to mask the reality.

Davies- Lewis later returns to the change within the Welsh Conservatives:

‘They are becoming a peculiar beast: a political party standing candidates for election to a parliament they want to dismantle.’

Is such an approach not dissimilar to Plaid Cymru standing candidates for election to Westminster, given they stand candidates for election to a parliament they want to be free of?

Would Davies- Lewis dub Plaid Cymru a peculiar beast for standing candidates in Westminster elections? 

We can assume that he would not apply such a judgement despite the similarities. Ultimately this betrays Davies- Lewis position, a double standard where Welsh Nationalists can participate in a political system they seek to dismantle, yet Unionists must abandon their principles and conform with a settlement they do not support.

It is possible to participate in a system that you do not support. To participate is to reflect the realities of the time, it does not require acceptance of the current consensus.  Fundamentally Davies- Lewis must appreciate for some Unionists they see themselves as having a dual identity, Welsh and an overarching identity of British. That dual identity is not anti- Welsh it just places little value on an institution which risks the overarching identity.

One has to observe that on the whole, those lamenting the changing direction of the Welsh Conservative Party are not supporters of the party. So it begs the question of why they are so vociferous in opposition to the change, could it be that they lament the change due to the risk to devolution?

Listening to the wind of change

Christopher Harries

In recent weeks, the devosceptic instinct within the Welsh Conservative Party membership has become increasingly prominent with prospective candidates eager to demonstrate their credentials at selections.

Initial hostility to devolution from the party gave way to reluctant acceptance and then in time facilitation. The party establishment has come to accept devolution as a here to stay. 

However, the rank and file membership has not been as quick or as willing to embrace devolution. 

Turnout is consistently lower for elections for the devolved institution. Polling suggests 71 per cent of people who intend to vote Conservative in the constituency vote would support abolition in a referendum. Despite hostility from the membership, such open opposition has not been articulated by Conservative representatives in Cardiff Bay for years. 

Previously attempts have been made to remove a prospective candidate for espousing devosceptic views. Despite the grumblings and apathy of the members, this subject has been effectively off-limits. Yet the constituency and ongoing regional list selections have brought the matter firmly back into the discussion. 

The taxpayer-supported site Nation.Cymru has highlighted prospective regional list candidates who have sought to appeal to the devosceptic membership by stating they want to scrap devolution. While a senior figure in the Welsh Conservative Party, Deputy Chairman Dr Tomos Dafydd Davies has written on Gwydir about devolution.

Dr Davies stated in the article:

“Whilst most Conservatives have come to accept and live with devolution, we are all united in our desire to bring an end to perpetual debates around more powers.”

The polling referred to above, does not support this assertion. If the membership have reached acceptance, why is there such support for the abolition of the Senedd in polling?

Conservative party members may have to live with devolution yet that not the same as acceptance.

Dr Davies continued:

“The next Conservative Manifesto, without prevarication, should proclaim a complete moratorium on any further devolution of powers until the end of the next Welsh Parliament term.”

If the intention is to bring to an end to debates around more powers a moratorium defeats the object instead merely delaying the matter.

Maybe this is pedantic, but idiom run with the hare and hunt with the hounds could easily apply.

A moratorium does not preclude further devolution in future.

Some might question if Dr Davies is looking to appeal to the anti devolution sentiment within the Welsh Conservative membership?

Devosceptic members should be flattered that establishment figures have been listening to their concerns on devolution and are seeking to articulate a message that appeals.

In time could Devoscepticism become a universal litmus test at selections for prospective candidates?

Ultimately time will tell, however, this issue is now firmly back under discussion. Rhetoric alone will not suffice.

Regarding Nation.Cymru

Christopher Harries

This morning, Nation Cymru were kind enough to report on the substance of one of our articles originally published on December 22, 2020.

One must question whether the intention is to report on an ongoing debate within the Welsh Conservative Party or if the intent is to try and cow individuals from articulating anti- devolution sentiments?

This article is just the latest story on Nation.Cymru regarding anti-devolution sentiments within the Welsh Conservative Party. Now, maybe there is some merit to reporting a debate over the direction of a political party operating in Wales. However, are the authors of such coverage prepared to allow the focus of such stories the opportunity to fully articulate their case within the same article?

Or are such stories published with different intentions? Such coverage seems to elicit a not entirely pleasant response on social media. Now responsibility for such conduct rests with the individuals posting such social media posts, however you have to wonder if the authors are indulging the worst instincts of some of their readers by posting such content in the manner that they do.

The furore on social media can be unpleasant and can put people off politics. We launched the Prydain Review to foster debate on the Welsh centre right and we are unafraid of legitimate criticism of our content or indeed civil discourse.

To clarify this page is editorially independent of the Conservative Party and the only connection would be the political affiliation of some of its contributors. It does not seem at overly newsworthy that some members of the Conservative and Unionist party would be opposed to devolution in principle or practice it seems akin to reporting that members of Plaid Cymru support the notion of Welsh Independence.

To end, furore on social media will not dissuade us from publishing content critical of devolution.

End of a chapter

Christopher Harries

The latest chapter of our nation’s story is edging towards its conclusion. 

Tonight, the transition period will come to a close. The new year will see the United Kingdom embark on a new path outside of the European Union and in time forging a new relationship with the European Union. 

With the United Kingdom outside of the supranational body, it is time for the political class to assume full responsibility. For too long, Brussels has been the go-to cop-out for politicians. 

In apportioning ultimate responsibility to the European Union, our political class have absolved themselves of swathes of responsibility. With our departure from the European Union complete, there is no one to apportion blame to, but themselves and the electorate can duly hold them accountable.

The closing of this chapter will not be the end of the debate regarding the United Kingdom’s relations with the continent.

The rejection of the European Union was a vote for the continued existence of our nation. Some may deem that to be an exaggeration, but the direction of travel for the supranational body in the course of our membership was for ever closer union. 

The next chapter of our nation’s story must be one of renewal. The communities that proved crucial to the Leave campaign are the key to this renewal. Perceived as being neglected by the political elite, the focus must be on bridging the perception of neglect. 

Westminster has the opportunity to fill the void created with the end of European Union structural funding to reassert itself across the nation. To deploy the UK Shared Prosperity Fund where appropriate to counter the separatist narrative and demonstrate that Westminster cares about communities across the nation.

While we are poised to leave, the matter of our relationship with Europe is far from settled. 

Some of those who campaigned for Remain during the referendum, then sought to frustrate our departure, have intimated the debate moves to making the case that we now should seek to rejoin the European Union. 

We must make it clear that we have faith in our future as a self-governing parliamentary nation. In doing so, placing our faith in the judgement and the voice of the British people.

And to round off this musing, Happy New Year.

The Broad Church

Christopher Harries

Recent developments in the Welsh Conservative party risks undermining the notion that the party is a broad church.

In recent years we have had attempts to remove a candidate for espousing devosceptic views that clashed with the conservative group in Cardiff Bay. More recently, the selection panel for South Wales Central questioned prospective candidates on how they would vote in a hypothetical referendum on abolishing the Senedd. Some members may think this an apt question, given the membership is on the whole sceptical of devolution. Yet could it be a reaction by some members to the previous attempt to remove a devosceptic candidate? 

The unilateral exclusion of prospective candidates based on such an issue does a disservice to the membership. Has the party become a single-issue party and must prospective candidates be subject to such a litmus test? 

As Michael Evans pointed out in his excellent article last week, potential candidates are aware that a devosceptic message is a way to increase the probability of victory at selection meetings. Yet the membership must be the judge on the suitability of a prospective candidate. A sift committee is not the means to unilaterally root out individuals who we may disagree with politically. 

I make this case as someone of the opinion that the Welsh Parliament should face abolition, and yes, I welcome the presence of overt devosceptic candidates on the regional shortlists. Yet, I have no wish for the Welsh Conservative party to move away from being a broad church. We cannot lament attempts to remove a devosceptic candidate and stay silent when it appears that a litmus test has been used, as a means to exclude viable prospective candidates from being forward to the membership. 

Be under no illusion the party must be a broad church. Able to accommodate debate and represent a necessarily broad spectrum of opinion. As a party, we should not be afraid of discourse and should oppose any factionalism that risks sidelining individuals. Members must be free to hold and voice their views providing loyalty is maintained to the party at the ballot box. 

Debate on contentious issues like devolution must be acceptable if the party is not to see supporters abandon it for rivals. We should be wary of the party becoming a sect intolerant of dissenting opinion, while to descend into factionalism would be the surety for failure at the ballot box.

A Christmas Message

Christopher Harries

The Coronavirus pandemic and government restrictions are impeding Christmas celebrations across the globe.

Here in Wales, the restrictions have hampered preparations and left individuals in a situation where they may be unable to celebrate with family. As I write this, my grandmother’s ability to join our family on Christmas Day is in limbo.

There will be thousands of elderly and vulnerable people across Wales in such a situation, and we should spare a thought for those isolated in a season rooted in family.

Contemplating the markedly different Christmas that awaits this year has highlighted that we have on the whole lost sight of the reason for the season. The meaning is not found, in food or presents.

For those of us who believe, the nativity saw the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God. The child, born in lowly surroundings, destined to suffer death and resurrection, in line with scripture. As stated earlier, the season is rooted in the family the birth of Jesus completes a family unit. Jesus Christ conceived by the holy spirit, born of the Virgin Mary and raised and protected by Joseph.

In our increasingly secular society, materialism has supplanted the birth of Christ. The scaled-back Christmas that many of us will be experiencing this year should allow us to look past the materialism and focus on what is truly important in life, each other. Let us aspire to try to be better, to be more considerate and caring going forward.

The last few days with the imposition of restrictions may have seemed short of hope. Let the humble manger act as a reminder that Christmas is not about the trappings. Instead, the nativity is a story of hope, with the birth of Jesus the emergence of light into the darkness.

Hopefully, in a year, restrictions will be a thing of the past, then we can return to celebrating Christmas as we have traditionally. Until then let us look out for those facing Christmas alone and try to ease their isolation.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Five Reasons why Devoscepticism is the future of the Welsh Conservatives

Michael Evans

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.

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. 

In Response

Christopher Harries

Over the weekend former Cardiff Bay Conservative intern, Theo Davies- Lewis wrote for that taxpayer-supported entity Nation Cymru about the Welsh Conservatives. Davies- Lewis used the article to muse on the state of the Welsh Conservative party.

To start with, the UK government has not covered itself in glory in handling the Coronavirus pandemic, with numerous missteps and communication foibles. Another failing is allowing constituent parts of the United Kingdom to be seen as treated differently during the crisis. For instance, the rejection of the Welsh Government requests to bring forward support schemes seemingly without offering an extension to the furlough scheme fosters a narrative that undermines the Union.

Now Davies- Lewis suggests that the Welsh Conservatives have acted as the anti- devolution and anti- Welsh brigade for several months. We should not confuse ambition for reform with hostility to devolution. The ‘Devolution Revolution’ that Paul Davies MS advocates fundamentally seeks to reform service delivery. As for accusations of being anti- Welsh is pointing out a fiscal deficit substantive proof? 

Davies- Lewis suggests that the Welsh Conservatives should form their own identity, to some this would be eminently sensible. Yet who would ultimately be the leader of this entity? Would it be the Secretary of State for Wales or the leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament? 

The idea that the Welsh Conservatives should have a distinct identity poses several issues not confined to just conundrums over leadership. The electoral breakthrough from the General Election last year came on the back of the Westminster campaign with an unambiguously clear objective -namely to get Brexit done. Would the part have been as effective in December if it was a movement driven by Welsh issues? 

One could suspect that this idealised form of the Welsh Conservative party with David Melding MS at its core would not have had such an impact with the electorate. The party had several elections with Melding at the core, three National Assembly elections in fact where he helped to write the manifesto and did those elections yield electoral breakthrough? 

Melding is a well-read, thoughtful politician, yet his approach towards devolution appears to be out of step with the party membership. Polling from earlier this year suggests that 54-56% of Conservative voters would vote to abolish the Welsh Parliament in a yes/ no referendum. Such polling indicates that a softer approach to devolution may not be electorally prudent.

What Davies- Lewis may not appreciate that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party historically has a degree of autonomy that the Welsh Conservatives have not had. Aspirations may exist in some quarters for the Welsh Conservatives to obtain greater independence, yet this seems an unnecessary distraction and ignores that the parties fortunes are dependent upon Westminster performance.

Returning to Melding, those who have read his musings on Last of the Unionists will note that he has long been against leaving the European Union and advocates federalism as the future for the United Kingdom. Those of who are unionists, see federalism as incompatible with the unitary nature of the United Kingdom. However, well-intentioned the suggestion of federalism is, it has limitations and would fail to bind the United Kingdom together.

For the Internal Market Bill, an observation it seems that those opposed to the bill often are those in support of the break up of the United Kingdom or are fully-fledged supporters of devolution. 

Where were there objections when the European Union held those powers? The lack of objection previously shows that the real issue is a fear of a more assertive United Kingdom.

Now, for the notion that the Welsh Conservatives are opposed to taking independent decisions within the UK, Davies- Lewis needs to appreciate that conservatives would welcome localised decision making. The reservations, Welsh Conservatives have about devolution is that power is that it is creating a viable framework to break up the United Kingdom.

Naturally there are merits to the assessment that Wales needs a strong opposition. The Devolution Revolution outlined by Davies and the Welsh Conservatives is the means for such opposition, rhetoric must now be backed up with detail.


Christopher Harries

The people of Wales have in the last few days been unwittingly subject to a miraculous act. The First Minister, Mark Drakeford has inadvertently performed the political equivalent of the miracle in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel, Jesus cured a Celidonius of blindness while Drakeford may have gifted the Welsh public sight.

Since the onset of Devolution, Labour has dominated politics in Cardiff Bay. That dominance has been impervious to failings or scandal.

In the absence of media scrutiny and public interest, events that would cause substantive damage to the public trust if they were to happen in Westminster can pass without impact on the public perception of the Welsh Labour Government.

Imagine the furore if in Westminster a Minister had sought to pressure the civil servants at their command to obtain private information on opposition figures. Or if the Prime Minister were to act unlawfully in the way he made arrangements for an inquiry connected to the suicide of a colleague? These are just some of the scandals that have passed here in Wales without the Government facing real scrutiny or judgement.

To focus on scandal is not to ignore failings, like the management of the Welsh Health Service which has seen five of seven health boards in Wales taken into special measures. Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board remains in special measures more than five years after being into placed into such measures by the then Health Minister, one Mark Drakeford.

Let us not forget that Labour has governed Wales in one form or another for over twenty years. Yet how often has the Welsh Government been held to account for failings that harm the people of Wales?

Devolution has created a situation where politicians in Cardiff Bay have been able to evade being accountable for their failings. The public often apportions blame to Westminster rather than to those responsible in Cardiff Bay. This situation is exacerbated by a client media that seems to be averse to subjecting Ministers in Cardiff Bay to the sort of scrutiny afforded to those in Westminster.

The First Minister may have inadvertently given the Welsh public the miraculous restoration of sight that has largely been missing for twenty years. The debacle of restrictions applied to the sale of non- essential goods in retailers allowed to remain open has given the Welsh Government greater scrutiny or wider media attention since the onset of devolution.

With the next election for the Welsh Parliament looming closer, this miracle should be welcomed by all. Increased interest in the politics of Cardiff Bay may help to address the apathy that has become increasingly apparent with each election.

With the devolved Government finally seen to be responsible for measures that adversely impact on the lives of individuals, this could be the decisive moment of political awakening and with it change.

In the wake of scrutiny and public anger, the opportunity is there for the Welsh Conservatives to demonstrate that they are a government in waiting. Offering enhanced scrutiny as well as a substantive agenda for change that delivers for the people of Wales.

Let us hope that the restoration of sight to the people of Wales is not fleeting but permanent like that restored to Celidonius.