Brexit and the Welsh Conservatives

Nicolas Webb explores the impact of the referendum for the Welsh Conservatives.






Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking at the opening of the GAVI Alliance immunisations pledging conference in London, June 13 2011

The EU Referendum and the Conservative Party are interlinked in a way that ensured whatever the outcome last Thursday, the impact on the Tories would be significant. Incredibly, in the short-term it appears the vote was even more destructive to Labour and time will tell what a post-referendum UKIP will look like. Nonetheless the failure to resolve the differences over EU membership within the Conservative Party which has rumbled through the establishment of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and promises of referendum locks has come to a head after three decades of disagreement. The Prime Minister who wanted his party to stop “banging on about Europe” is leaving Downing Street precisely because the party did not do so fuelled by a combination of backbench conviction and fear of losing votes to UKIP. When the campaign came the leading figures on either side were Conservatives, in part this was due to the lacklustre Remain case coming from Labour and the early benching of Sir Stuart Rose.

In the immediate aftermath of the result this has resulted in plenty of credit being given to the party as a whole for delivering on the pledge of a referendum. However, there are two major reasons for caution for the party. Firstly, there can be no vacuum of authority during the transition to a new Prime Minister at a time when there is understandable uncertainty. Secondly, the Leave campaign did have supporters who did not share the similar tolerant worldview which you would reasonably expect from a mainstream political party. It is possible that some of the incidents of xenophobia which were reported over the weekend may have occurred even if there had not been a Brexit vote. Nonetheless, it is now incumbent upon those who argued for Leave on the basis of democratic and economic ideals to condemn these crimes and re-emphasise an open, welcoming, tolerant and global outlook for the UK.

Politicians would also do well to learn that some of the outpouring against immigration has been fueled by their own words, actions and inconsistencies. This applies to Labour too but as this article is focused on the Conservatives, consider the unimplementable pledge prior to the 2010 General Election to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. Irrespective of whether one agrees with the policy or not, within the EU the Government simply did not have the tools to deliver on the pledge. The frustration that grows from such broken promises is more damaging in the long-run than an honest acknowledgement of the limitations on Government.

In Wales, there were high profile Conservatives on both sides of the referendum debate, each making a passionate case for their point of view. Few of the disagreements look likely to have an ongoing impact on the unity of the party. Andrew RT Davies’ support for Brexit has no doubt strengthened his standing among many of the activists, but he will need to reach out to the considerable number of Conservatives who campaigned for a Remain vote.

Perhaps a bigger challenge lies with building bridges with Conservative voters in Wales. On the eve of the referendum a Leave campaigner said in private that they were finding Labour wards leaning strongly towards Leave, while traditional Tory areas were politely dismissing the Leave campaigners on their doorstep. The results in the South East corner of Wales appear to indicate a similar pattern. Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan both had more voters for Remain while every Labour-held constituency outside of Cardiff had a majority for Leave. Of course, this presents an enormous challenge to Labour, but so too should it be raising concerns for the Welsh Conservatives. 2016 certainly feels a long way from those days when UKIP were seen as a threat to the Conservatives rather than to Labour.

In fact, that raises a further question about the potential of some form of political realignment. British political history suggests this is unlikely on a large scale although there has never been a moment quite like this with a confluence of so many factors. The difficulties suffered by Labour this week could just be the spark to ignite such a realignment. In Wales, we have seen a hint from Leanne Wood that Plaid Cymru would be prepared to look again at the possibility of a coalition with Labour. With a big question mark over what UKIP will become in the future, might some of their more fiscally-minded and less nationalist members actually be a better fit working alongside Conservatives? It is too soon for answers, but the questions are no-longer unthinkable.
The Conservative membership now have a tremendous responsibility to elect not just their leader, but the next Prime Minister. Whomever is successful, their approach to devolution in general and the Wales Bill in particular will be a vital factor in how the Welsh Conservative Group move forward. The 1997 candidate for Clwyd South is the favourite, you might have heard of him, his name is Boris. We know little about Johnson’s approach to devolution, although the experience of his time as Mayor of London should be beneficial to his outlook on the devolved administrations. It will be interesting to hear the views of the other contenders on matters of devolution. Of course, one contender stands out on this matter. Preseli Pembrokeshire’s Stephen Crabb reset what had been a poor relationship between Westminster and Cardiff Bay. His first draft of the Wales Bill was rejected, but this self-confessed convert to devolution will have a tremendous understanding of the evolving nature of devolved Welsh democracy. It should perhaps also be noted as we may be on the brink of another Scottish Independence Referendum that a Prime Minister who was born in Inverness might be in a stronger position than many to make the case for the UK. A Prime Minister from Wales must surely be an attractive thought to those Conservatives looking to bounce back from a disappointing Assembly election.

Nicolas Webb is Director of Gorse Cover, a political consultancy.