Next Welsh Tory leader will be fac­ing four mas­sive chal­lenges

Po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor David Wil­liamson looks at what is in store for the suc­ces­sor to An­drew RT Davies fol­low­ing his res­ig­na­tion as leader of the Welsh Con­ser­va­tives


AN­DREW RT Davies made waves this week when he an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion, but if Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tive leader Ruth David­son had quit she would have trig­gered a po­lit­i­cal earth­quake.

This is be­cause the Scot­tish leader has led such a spec­tac­u­lar resur­gence in Tory for­tunes – over­tak­ing Labour in both the Ed­in­burgh Par­lia­ment and at West­min­ster – that there is con­stant spec­u­la­tion as to whether she will one day lead the UK party.

In con­trast, deep chal­lenges face the Con­ser­va­tives in Wales and who­ever suc­ceeds Mr Davies will have to scram­ble to unify the Welsh party and give it a cred­i­ble chance of en­ter­ing govern­ment.

Here are four mas­sive tasks in the in-tray:

1. Welsh Tories need to stop los­ing elec­tions

The Welsh Con­ser­va­tives were once seen as a suc­cess story, es­pe­cially com­pared with the trou­bles faced by their Scot­tish coun­ter­parts in the early days of de­vo­lu­tion. Un­der Nick Bourne’s lead­er­ship, they were ad­mired for the suc­cess at wrap­ping them­selves in the Welsh flag, cel­e­brat­ing the Welsh lan­guage and even­tu­ally push­ing for fur­ther de­vo­lu­tion.

Tories won nine of the 60 Assem­bly seats in the first elec­tion and by 2011 they had 14. They scored a land­mark suc­cess in 2009 when they beat Labour to fin­ish first in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions – this in a na­tion where no Con­ser­va­tive MP had been elected in 1997 or 2001.

A high point came in 2015 when Wales sent 11 Tory MPs to West­min­ster. But then the win­ning streak came to a sud­den end.

In 2016 the party faced a pop­ulist anti-EU chal­lenger in the form of Ukip and lost three Assem­bly seats. And in last year’s gen­eral elec­tion Labour took three seats from the Con­ser­va­tives.

Labour ac­tivists are yearn­ing to un­seat former Welsh Sec­re­tary Stephen Crabb from Pre­seli Pem­brokeshire – the seat held in the Assem­bly by in­terim group leader Paul Davies. Mr Crabb’s ma­jor­ity tum­bled from 4,969 to 314 in 2017.

Who­ever emerges as the new Welsh Labour leader will want to see the party re­gain the two Pem­brokeshire seats, both in the Assem­bly and at West­min­ster. They will also fight to en­sure Labour con­tin­ues to hold the Vale of Glam­or­gan in the Assem­bly while work­ing to oust the Con­ser­va­tive MP – Welsh Sec­re­tary Alun Cairns – by pin­ning the blame on him for un­pop­u­lar UK Govern­ment de­ci­sions.

Mr Davies’ suc­ces­sor must en­sure the Welsh Con­ser­va­tive ma­chine is ready for bat­tle on mul­ti­ple fronts, and that will have to in­volve im­prov­ing co-op­er­a­tion with the UK Cen­tral Of­fice (Theresa May’s launch of the Welsh man­i­festo last year was al­most en­tirely dom­i­nated by the row over what op­po­nents had la­beled the “de­men­tia tax”).

Ac­tivists need to be re­cruited, re­tained and en­er­gised, and the per­cep­tion that the party is on the slide in Wales must be halted im­me­di­ately.

2. A Welsh Tory civil war must be avoided

One of the suc­cesses of Car­wyn Jones’ lead­er­ship has been pre­vent­ing Labour’s di­vi­sions in West­min­ster be­ing repli­cated in the Assem­bly group. Even when the UK party was in the throes of a lead­er­ship elec­tion, AMs on both the left and the right main­tained an ap­pear­ance of com­mon pur­pose.

It will be dis­as­trous for Welsh Con­ser­va­tives if the Brexit/Re­mainer di­vi­sions seen in West­min­ster takes root in Wales – but it may be too late.

An­drew RT Davies ir­ri­tated some fel­low Tories by cham­pi­oning Brexit ahead of the ref­er­en­dum, and his res­ig­na­tion fol­lowed an at­tack on Air­bus – which has gi­ant op­er­a­tions in north Wales – af­ter it voiced con­cerns about the “cat­a­strophic” con­se­quences of leav­ing the EU with­out a deal.

Sources quoted in the press have pre­sented Mr Davies as the vic­tim of an “or­ches­trated plot” and warned of “very dark times for Brex­i­teers”.

Labour, Plaid, Ukip and the Lib Dems will be thrilled if a Tory lead­er­ship con­test de­scends into an orgy of re­crim­i­na­tion and ide­o­log­i­cal war­fare, and de­lighted if this con­tin­ues in the run-up to the next round of elec­tions.

The next group leader will need to sharply re­mind AMs that their pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to hold the Welsh Govern­ment to ac­count on cru­cial de­volved is­sues such as health, ed­u­ca­tion, trans­port and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment – and that they are play­ing into their foes’ hands if they mir­ror di­vi­sions in the UK Par­lia­ment.

He or she will also need to find an ef­fec­tive way of work­ing with West­min­ster col­leagues. Rows about who is the real “Welsh Con­ser­va­tive leader” do noth­ing to pro­mote an im­age of co­he­sion and com­pe­tence, and the ab­sence of both Mr Davies and Mr Cairns from the 2017 BBC Wales elec­tion de­bate – for which Cl­wyd West AM Dar­ren Mil­lar had to step in – is the type of fi­asco that must avoided.

3. The Welsh Con­ser­va­tive brand needs to be res­cued

In­tel­li­gent peo­ple can ad­vance co­her­ent ar­gu­ments for why the UK Govern­ment was right to con­clude that nei­ther elec­tri­fy­ing the Great Western line from Cardiff to Swansea nor back­ing the en­ergy-gen­er­at­ing la­goon pro­posed for that city of­fered good value for money.

Nev­er­the­less, pulling the plug on th­ese projects has been a PR dis­as­ter for the UK Govern­ment and, by ex­ten­sion, the Con­ser­va­tives in Wales. It is un­for­tu­nate that the 2015 Welsh Tory man­i­festo con­tained the ex­plicit and un­equiv­o­cal pledge to “fin­ish the job of elec­tri­fy­ing the Great Western main­line to Swansea and the Val­leys lines”; it also de­scribed how the la­goon would “cre­ate thou­sands of jobs and at­tract mil­lions of pounds’ worth of in­vest­ment”.

There has been a change of prime min­is­ter and a gen­eral elec­tion since then, but the Con­ser­va­tives’ ri­vals will see this as the equiv­a­lent of an elec­toral wa­ter-can­non to be de­ployed against Tories in con­tests for years to come.

Labour will try to present the Con­ser­va­tives as a party more ex­cited about re­nam­ing the sec­ond Severn bridge in honour of the Prince of Wales (with­out pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion) than about in­vest­ing in in­fra­struc­ture.

Tories can claim this is wildly un­fair and ar­gue that they de­serve credit for scrap­ping the Severn tolls, sup­port­ing Welsh nu­clear power projects and in­tro­duc­ing “city deals”; they will say the Labour Welsh Govern­ment should be blamed for the lack of progress on an M4 re­lief road. But their op­po­nents will claim Con­ser­va­tives are more in­ter­ested in ex­pand­ing Heathrow and help­ing Lon­don­ers get to work on Cross­rail than in re­viv­ing Wales.

The Assem­bly group leader will need to work to en­sure that Con­ser­va­tive AMs are not blamed for ev­ery un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sion taken by the UK Govern­ment.

In par­tic­u­lar, he or she will have to build bridges with the 47.5% of the pop­u­la­tion who voted Re­main. The Tories will be in trou­ble in the 2021 Assem­bly and 2022 West­min­ster elec­tions if re­gret at leav­ing the EU is so in­tense that Re­main vot­ers refuse to con­sider back­ing a Con­ser­va­tive can­di­date; that would squelch Tory chances of win­ning back a seat like Cardiff North.

4. Tories need to show they can be any­thing more than an op­po­si­tion party in Wales

Peo­ple are much more will­ing to vote for the Con­ser­va­tives in a West­min­ster elec­tion than in an Assem­bly con­test. Last year 528,839 Welsh peo­ple cast a vote for the Tories, com­pared with only 215,597 who voted for a Con­ser­va­tive to rep­re­sent their con­stituency in the 2016 Assem­bly elec­tion.

Would more peo­ple turn out to vote Tory if they thought the party had a chance of win­ning a Welsh elec­tion – or at least form­ing part of a coali­tion?

We’re ap­proach­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of the Assem­bly’s found­ing and the Tories still have no ex­pe­ri­ence of de­volved govern­ment. They have yet to dis­prove the rule that the leader of Welsh Labour will be the First Min­is­ter.

To be a cred­i­ble FM, Mr Davies’ suc­ces­sor will need poli­cies that win the at­ten­tion and sup­port of the pub­lic. Yet he or she must also avoid be­ing the in­vis­i­ble man or woman of Welsh pol­i­tics.

In an ar­ti­cle for the Spec­ta­tor, Pro­fes­sor Roger Awan-Scully, of Cardiff Univer­sity’s Wales Gov­er­nance Cen­tre, ar­gued: “[Mr Davies’] pub­lic recog­ni­tion lev­els were much lower than those of First Min­is­ter Car­wyn Jones and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood... The most re­cent Welsh Po­lit­i­cal Barometer poll had him av­er­ag­ing below four on a 0-10 pop­u­lar­ity scale, and lead­ing only Ukip’s Neil Hamil­ton in the pop­u­lar­ity stakes.”

The next leader will have to con­vince vot­ers there is a cred­i­ble chance that Con­ser­va­tives will be in the next Welsh Govern­ment – and that would al­most in­evitably mean some kindd of pact with Plaid Cymru.

For that to hap­pen, ur­gent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate change must take place in the Senedd, so who­ever suc­ceeds Mr Davies will re­quire acute diplo­matic skills to per­suade Plaid AMs that they could take Wales on a pro­gres­sive jour­ney to­gether.

Rob Browne

> An­drew RT Davies

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