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What future is there, not just for the Conservatives in Wales, but for the wider centre-right? – Laura McAllister

If we’ve learnt nothing else of late, it’s that Zoom can be a risky space.

And so it proved for the Prime Minister this week when he met online with Tory MPs representing seats in northern England.

Describing devolution as Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”, Boris Johnson apparently sees devolution as a disaster.

This is just the latest in a series of controversies – the Internal Market Bill, the alleged intention to bypass the Welsh Government on the M4 and then Brexit brinkmanship happily ignoring the protestations of the devolved governments.

Johnson’s remark was about Scottish devolution, of course. Wales rarely merits a mention, we don’t even get labelled a disaster!

That’s gratitude for you – the Welsh Conservatives make a healthy contribution to dismantling the so-called “red wall”, then rather remarkably polled ahead of Labour at the start of this year, yet I doubt if Paul Davies or the ubiquitous Andrew RT Davies even feature on Johnson’s radar.

All political parties are broad churches, of course. Our ridiculously outdated first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections necessitates this. But have the two big parties ever been so internally divided as they are currently? Leave Labour and anti-Semitism aside for a moment, the factions in the UK Tory party resemble 1980s student union politics, whilst there are more Conservative “research groups” than in a Russell Group University.

It’s less than a year since that incredible general election triumph when the Welsh Conservatives picked up 14 seats, including Wrexham (last blue in 1931), as well as the former First Minister’s seat of Bridgend.

Sure, it would take some doing not to look marginally better than the UK party in the midst of No.10’s internecine civil war, but things are by no means hunky dory in the ranks of the Welsh Conservatives either. It’s facing the unedifying prospect of an elected member of the Senedd suing his own constituency party amidst threats of deselection.

William Hague once said that the Tory party is an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide. The problem with absolute monarchies is the excess of personal fame causes punch-ups as soon as the going gets tough.

Against this backdrop, what future is there, not just for the Conservatives in Wales, but for the wider centre-right?

We know where the hard right is all right. Their noisy anti-devolution rants communicate a chopsy, but minority, interest. At the end of the day, half-a**ed, anti-establishment populism, exploiting alienation and ignorance, is on the march everywhere. But serious, democratic politics requires a degree of civilised competition between more traditional political chess pieces – mainstream centre-left and centre-right kings and queens, with socialist, green and nationalist parties often influential bishops and knights.

Wales is a land of contradictions in this regard. We may be a “one-party state”, but it is only one of the main parties that hasn’t had a presence in devolved government. The Welsh Conservatives came agonisingly close to wielding some power through the proposed Rainbow Coalition back in 2007, yet the party seems further away than ever from a place in government.

Did it have to be this way?

Since devolution, there have been tantalising glimpses of the emergence of a moderate, Welsh-leaning Conservatism. Nick Bourne’s leadership saw a deliberate attempt at recasting the party as a patriotically Welsh – albeit still unionist – vehicle that would be well placed to govern in coalition with Plaid Cymru and/or the Liberal Democrats.

A programme for government was even drawn up – the All-Wales Accord – reflecting a moderate, mostly liberal agenda, with nothing to scare the horses. Subsequent Welsh Conservative leadership candidates associated (fairly or unfairly) with “being more politically Welsh than the others” have been twice defeated.

What then has pulled the Welsh Conservatives further from a foothold in government?

The first (ironically) is that they’re already running Wales to some extent via the UK Government. The pandemic has complicated things (to put it mildly), leaving us with two more or less equally influential governments when it comes to impacting our daily lives.

Most taxes, benefits and the furlough scheme are decided by the Conservative government in Westminster, which initially tried to set some kind of UK-wide narrative on the pandemic.

But lockdown timing and implementation, and public health, especially track and trace, are determined by the Labour Government in Cardiff.

This has resulted in a kind of Cold War between Drakeford and Johnson – periods of conflict, periods of détente and periods where the UK Government takes the offensive. We can expect to see a lot more Union Jack-badged initiatives in the months to come, like Simon Hart’s commitment that troops would be deployed in Merthyr to help with mass Covid-19 testing.

Unsurprisingly, most in the Welsh Conservatives have been unwaveringly pro-Boris, seeing him as the all-conquering leader who helped deliver six new Welsh MPs. Cue some very peculiar interventions, like Davies’ call for a “dose of Dom”, or his lieutenants criticising Welsh Government lockdown plans just before they were replicated in England. Non-essential goods in supermarkets anyone?

The second catalyst is action to the right. In the 2016 election, Ukip’s performance was the story of the night (alongside Leanne Wood winning Rhondda). No one doubts the decent-sized devo-sceptic and populist right vote. That’s up for grabs, albeit in a crowded field with Abolish the Assembly, the remaining Faragists, Alliance for Reform, plus the Conservatives themselves. Some feel the Welsh Tories have allowed the populist attack dogs to the right not only to encroach on their lawns, but to cock their legs on the grass too.

Writing in Nation.Cymru, Patrick McGuinness said: “Conservative party politicians are feeding an ugly tide of vicious anti-Welsh as well as anti-devolution bullying… to lay the groundwork for hoovering up the anti-Welsh vote in the coming Senedd election.”

He’s right up to a point, especially in an election likely to be fought more on Facebook than the doorstep. But the Welsh Conservatives can’t afford to associate too closely with that wing. Wales Governance Centre research shows that Conservative voters in Wales are largely devo-sceptic, but that might have softened post-Covid-19. Anyway, it doesn’t mean a referendum on getting rid of the Senedd is viable. It’s certainly not a priority for the UK Government and this puts the Welsh party in the tricky position of balancing an anti-devo stance without calling for the Senedd’s abolition.

Not all of this is the Welsh party’s fault, mind. A generous devolutionist offer from the UK Conservatives might’ve helped unlock Welsh politics and open up potentially fruitful terrain. Welsh secretaries have been a motley crew, but Stephen Crabb’s tenure did at least see him try to manoeuvre around devolving income tax when it was perceived that the Welsh Labour government were nervous. But that was bungled, relying on a fundamentally flawed Wales Bill and tying the income tax offer to a destined never-to-be-called referendum. Tax devolution ended up proceeding on terms entirely agreeable to Labour.

What of Paul Davies and his so-called devolution revolution? I’m afraid it just doesn’t cut the mustard. Packed full of small fry attacks on ministerial advisers and public spending largesse, with reference to organisations most people won’t even have heard of. Plenty of head nodding but scarcely a lever to prise open the door of government. It’s hope and a smattering of positive messages that are more likely to win elections.

Scatter gun policies like binning quangos and Wales’ international offices conveniently ignores things like the need for an international profile – to boost the economy as much as anything. As the new sports diplomacy report launched by the British Council showed, sub-state tiers can play uniquely powerful roles in soft power strategies for boosting jobs and economic growth.

Overall, the Conservatives’ is a reactive, timid, deferential, “know your place” vision of devolution, with its parameters strictly determined by our masters. Strictly speaking, that’s the nature of devolution in a unitary state but, if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that the operation of the British constitution is rather different to what the textbooks tell us.

Davies himself appears a pleasant chap, although I’m not sure the same can be said for a few of his colleagues. Their stance has made the Welsh Tories look angry and stale, never mind male and pale. But there are more than a few talented women in the party’s ranks – Suzy Davies and Angela Burns stand out as clever, compassionate politicians – but they’ve been largely squeezed aside by burly machismo or drowned out by loud political shouting. I wonder what they – and new MP Fay Jones – think of the attack-dog tactics?

And will there be any BAME Conservative MSs elected next May? The Welsh Conservatives need a massive diversity makeover, but they’re not alone in that regard and, anyway, the problems go far deeper than that. I’ve long thought that Wales needs a strong centre-right opposition. It’s the missing ingredient for maturing our currently very immature politics. I’m talking about a party based on respect and decency, in tune with modern values and with younger members that better reflect the Welsh population, socially modern, economically moderate, Welsh and British identifying. I’m convinced this could have legs. My in-laws are instinctive conservatives – Welsh, Welsh-speaking, but proudly British too. They are socially liberal and put off by what they see (or don’t see) within current Tory ranks.

Could this be reform of the Welsh Tories or a new party? I wonder what Welsh politics would be like if David Melding’s Wales-first unionism had a political home of its own instead of sitting uneasily within the Conservatives.

It’s little-remembered today, but many years ago, the cerebral Melding, now the self-styled “last of the unionists”, called for an autonomous Welsh Conservative Party standing for a properly progressive agenda (and even with its own name, “Ymlaen”). Apparently, Nick Bourne himself vetoed the proposal, but it still makes for an interesting counter factual. It would certainly have diversified the Welsh political space, even more polarised now with the retreat (temporary or permanent) of the Liberal Democrats.

While it’s not necessarily cerebral voices that are needed right now, as ever, rethinking the constitution remains crucial. Where is the clear blue water that Douglas Ross is keen to display in Scotland?

The right here could do with a few folk with energy and personality (a Welsh Ruth Davidson?), plus some younger grafters who can relate to those currently disengaged with devolution. But, importantly, the devolutionist space is being monopolised by Welsh Labour as Plaid Cymru hardens its independence stance.

Labour is talking a more conditional unionism, with the British state more an insurance policy than an emotional bond. The space is wide open, you’d imagine, for a fiercely devolutionist party with a distinctive economic agenda, less interventionist and passionate about Britain and Wales. Not a jingoistic Union Jack-waving unionism, more a Welsh party mindful of our national distinctiveness but with a gentle preference for continued historic connections with the other nations of the British Isles.

I suspect this is where many of the quieter, more moderate conservatives tend to sit. It’s one thing quoting a poll showing that most Tory voters would abolish the Senedd, but remember, many centre-right inclined people may never have voted in a devolved election. A new party (or even parties) might free up those who are definitely not Labour or Plaid but, without a Liberal Democrat presence, could be looking for a new political home.

I don’t expect to see a new party emerge just yet, but who knows? Maybe, just maybe, Conservative gains in next year’s Senedd elections yet emerging with absolutely no influence whatsoever might force the party’s hand. Ultimately, electoral reform of the kind we recommended for the Senedd, with multi-member constituencies elected by Single Transferable Vote, would offer the platform for a broader range of political voices to be heard or, at the very least, stimulate greater independent thinking within existing parties.

The turkeys not voting for Christmas adage might be about to be proved wrong.

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