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.
> Andrew RT Davies