The decision by Andrew RT Davies to sack a third of his group from the Shadow Cabinet is a significant moment in Welsh politics and in the story of his party in Wales.
Let me be clear: I do not believe this is a good decision for the Welsh Conservatives.
As four seems to be the magic number, let me offer four reasons why this move is bad news. A reason each to represent the damage potentially done not just to Nick Ramsay, Janet Finch-Saunders, Antoinette Sandbach and Mohammed Asghar, but to the party as a whole.
Firstly, compare this moment to the decision taken last month by Leanne Wood to make a small shadow Cabinet for Plaid last month, keeping only five of her AMs as an alternative government. She did so with firmness and a sense of purpose which drew great praise. And critically she did so without openly offending anyone on her own side. That is how you change your front bench with purpose and calculation. The parallel is striking.
Secondly, Antoinette Sandbach, one of the four removed AMs, has already tweeted the most damaging consequence of the reshuffle: “it is regrettable that he has chosen to divide his party.” The choice to do this is of course entirely Andrew’s as group leader, but the consequences of doing so are his too. By choosing to make this decision in this way he has turned a disagreement over the obscure issue of whether income tax rates are locked together, if and when they are ever devolved, into a full blown division.
No party or party leader is stronger by alienating sections of his party. Even the short history of devolution shows us that the Conservative group is never stronger when key members end up on the backbenches. Think of Jonathan Morgan’s split with Nick Bourne, or the moment six months before the 2011 Assembly election when Andrew RT Davies himself left the Conservative Shadow Cabinet. The speculation at the time as to why he took this “mysterious” step is well summated here. Both Jonathan and Andrew at least by leaving of their own volition had to profess loyalty to Bourne. Antoinette, as the first of the four casualties to speak plainly, has shown no such restraint. The division is clear.
The third issue arising from this move is how wide the division is because it does not only affect the AMs concerned. The issue may not be a hot topic in the Dog and Duck but it is a hot topic amongst Welsh Conservatives outside the Assembly group. In the months following the Morgan and the Davies resignations they talked of little else. It will be no different this time. And worryingly for Andrew, the MPs have already started to make their discontent visible and audible. David TC Davies, MP for Monmouth and chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, has already tweeted critically of the decision: “Nick Ramsay right to oppose tax raising powers for Assembly. Sorry & surprised he was sacked. Has my support.”
This was not a statement of political loyalty because David and Nick are particularly close, but because the issue at the heart of this which can be put simply like this. The gang of four Conservatives were sacked because they refused to vote for a Plaid Cymru amendment which specifically criticised the Conservative UK Government. They have been martyred for not slagging off the policy on devolving income tax which the Secretary of State for Wales from their own party is advocating.
And the fourth reason this reshuffle is bad news is the way in which it was done. Last spring Carwyn Jones announced his reshuffled Cabinet by twitter. He at least had the courtesy to tell the members concerned first. Nick Ramsay was sacked from the shadow Cabinet not face to face and not even directly. He was told by Mick Antoniw AM, his Labour colleague from the Enterprise and Business Committee, who had read it on twitter as they travelled to Brussels on Committee business. Presumably that’s how Nick also found out that he was to be removed as chair of that Committee next week. The discourtesy of such a move is unbelievable. And the Conservative Party may be the most ruthless political party in the UK, but it is also the politest. Even those close to Andrew will struggle to defend such apparent high handedness.
So what happens now? Probably very little immediately. But in taking this step Andrew RT Davies has not only divided his party but he has helped Carwyn Jones hide the divisions in his over the same issue. Leanne Wood’s reshuffle was her best day as leader. Andrew RT Davies’ reshuffle was probably his worst.