The Welsh Tory Story: From toxic to triumphant…. and back again?

In search of a (lazy) metaphor to describe the Conservatives’ electoral history in the Assembly I have settled on every Welsh person’s favourite roller coaster – Oakwood’s Megaphobia. It started slow, on a ride they didn’t want to go on, but they have incrementally climbed higher and higher, with a few dips on the way… but could it all be about to come to a grinding halt?

Much like Megaphobia itself,  I realise this metaphor is pretty crap… 

The Welsh Conservative’s electoral roller-coaster

Despite their scepticism when it all began in 1999, the Conservatives have been arguably the greatest benefactors of devolution. In the days of Thatcher I think there was something akin to a witness protection scheme for those who voted Tory. Its ‘toxic brand’, as it was often referred to, didn’t improve in the 90s either – then Welsh Secretary John Redwood doing an impression of a goldfish as he tries to mouth the Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau is a particularly memorable own goal. By 1997 the Tory MP was extinct in Wales.

But Cardiff Bay has been much kinder to them.

Under the arch devo-sceptic Nick (now Lord) Bourne the Tories went from 9 seats and third place in ’99, to 14 and second in 2011. The irony of doing so well in the institution they liked so little was not amiss to Bourne and Co. I’m sure. The even bigger irony of Bourne losing his seat in the 2011 election as a result of an electoral quirk triggered by the Party doing so well overall, I’m sure is equally apparent to them.

Under their current leader, Andrew RT Davies, they have embraced the position of official opposition and been a real thorn in the side of Labour. And the assumption until recently has been that they will kick on in next month’s Assembly elections after a barnstorming set of Welsh results in the General Election.

The best results for Welsh Tories in 30 years, 2010 saw them take over a quarter of the Parliamentary constituencies west of Offa’s Dyke – achieving big wins, like pipping Labour in West Wales to take their 100-year-stronghold of Gower and growing their majority by over 2000 in the hotly contested marginal, Cardiff North.

But, it’s starting to feel like their luck might be running out.

I thought three was the magic number…

This is the first Assembly term in which we have had a taste of a full-blooded Conservative Government at the other end of the M4. As we approach the Welsh elections, the Welsh arm of the Tories will inevitably be aware that the brand values emanated by their Westminster colleagues will have a greater impact than ever.

And that hasn’t been hugely helpful as of late.

Cameron’s hug-a-hoodie/husky-we’re-all-in-this-together-long-term-economic-plan-one-nation brand of Toryism has had a trio of well-publicised snags of late, none of which the Welsh Tory strategist will be thanking them for.

  1. Where do EU stand on a Brexit?

Ok, I know we are all already bored of this, but the EU referendum has cast a big shadow over the Assembly elections. The Welsh Tories led the charge of ambivalence towards the proximity of the EU referendum having any negative effect on the elections; but there must have been a few choice words within the Welsh Tory HQ when the date was announced.

The blue-on-blue infighting is doing damage to the Conservatives on pretty much every front. But perhaps most confusingly of all, was the revelation that Andrew RT Davies was an ardent of Brexiteer. It’s unlikely to play well with a significant portion of the core rural Welsh Tory vote, whose farming communities have become so tightly wound up with the EU, through the various subsidies and export deals.

It also begs the question, on what platform are the Welsh Conservatives fighting the election when it comes to the EU. The Party is officially in, but the leader is out…?

Equally, UKIP look to have sewn up the established anti-EU vote in Wales. I can’t see how this mess of their own making is of any benefit to the Tories.

It added some spice to the last few weeks of the Assembly before it broke up for the election at least.

  1. Is this Ta-ta to Welsh steel?

The only thing that has overshadowed the EU referendum debate is the increasingly precarious position of Tata’s Welsh steel portfolio, and the future of Port Talbot in particular. As what felt like the world looked to Business Secretary Sajid Javid for leadership, the Welsh public at least, were left wanting.

Polling has consistently shown that the Welsh electorate has been more than unimpressed with what they have seen from the Tories in Westminster on steel. Whilst Labour are seen to have stolen a march on the issue – as was made unhelpfully clear for them by a Corbyn adviser, when, with little sensitivity, he proclaimed that the steel crisis “has played well for us”.

The Welsh Conservatives will inherently try to insulate themselves from any of the bad feelings towards their Westminster companions. But, if the finely balanced scales tip in the wrong direction before Wales gets to the polling booths, the failure of the Westminster Conservative Government to save Welsh steel will inevitably manifest itself in a sorry results day for the boys and girls in blue.

Things of course could change in time for Andrew RT Davies and crew to come out on top. With a management buyout reinvigorating hope of a speedy solution and the UK Government offering to nationalise 25% of Port Talbot, if a deal is agreed before May 5th, the Welsh Tories won’t be looking to insulate themselves from the actions of Westminster. It’ll be quite the opposite, as they try to bask in the glow of what will inevitably be perceived as a Conservative victory.

  1. I’m not (off-)sure you’re helping

Welsh politics has always had a touch of the parochial about it. Not that it’s necessarily been a bad thing – it often means we won’t accept candidates being parachuted in and we get politicians who are truly representative of the communities they lead (although, to be fair, UKIP are doing their best to change this).

It has however, made the historically “English” Tory brand pretty ineffective in Wales. The clipped tones and tweed suits evoked by the old-school Tory elite has been difficult to purge from Welsh minds.

But just as in-roads were seemingly beginning to be made and the divisive nature of the Tory brand began to subside in Wales, revelations about the tax affairs of the Prime Minister have prised the gap back open between “us” and “them”.  Poor handling of the situation aside, simply the fact that Cameron had anything to do with off-shore money and that his mother could simply gift £200,000 doesn’t help the Tories look like they are ‘of the people’ – especially at a time when the pain of austerity is still at the front of people’s minds and the Tory slogan of “we’re all in this together” still rings in people ears.

So, how to win in Wales?

The Tories already know they can’t win and they can’t become part of any Welsh Government administration – Plaid have already ruled out any kind of deal (repeatedly) and the chances of some unholy Labour-Conservative alliance is unthinkable. The maths for a deal with any of the other party (UKIP or the Lib Dems), even if they would have them, just doesn’t work.

So this is really about defining what the Tories can count as a win. Cementing their position in second place will undoubtedly be the main aim. But as the big day approaches and minds begin to be made up, Plaid look to have re-taken the silver medal, with no prospect of a late dip at the line from the Conservatives.

The Tories’ tones have also begun to shift. Most telling of all was a seemingly slightly left-field intervention from Andrew RT Davies on turnout. He recently told the BBC that the potentially low-turnout brings into question the “credibility” of the Assembly elections. It is a completely legitimate and to some extent pertinent point. But it is not a point that would be raised by a party expecting to do well – you wouldn’t after all call into question the credibility of your own victory.

So, what’s the plan? I suspect the Tories now have their sights set on undermining the next Welsh Government, before it is even formed. Tactically it might not be a bad move, with so much uncertainty as to what the next Cardiff Bay administration would look like (no clear majority / workable minority is expected for any party), throwing their weight into the mix might serve to unsettle the situation before the whole thing gets started.

Forcing a second election is possible, but seems unlikely. Sneaking a few Tory policies into a chaotic minority administration’s programme for government as various trade-offs are made, more possible.

Whatever the case come May 5th the Tories have some serious challenges still to come, with so many issues still hanging in the balance. They are playing an interesting tactical game at the moment, but whether it will pay off… I’m not sure anyone could know yet.

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