Life Under the Tories 1: Implications for Wales

John Osmond peers into an uncomfortable future for many across Wales facing the possibility of a Conservative administration in Westminster

Despite the mountain they have to climb to achieve victory in the general election expected next May, politicians, pollsters and public are all anticipating a Conservative victory. If this were to happen there would be for the first time governments of completely different political complexion in power in Westminster and Cardiff Bay. A conference being organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University next week on Friday 4 December asks what will be the implications for Wales, the National Assembly and the Welsh Government. Amongst others the conference is being addressed by the Welsh Conservative leader in the Assembly Nick Bourne and the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan, so we should get some answers.

Inevitably the most pressing question is the extent to which the Welsh Government will be able to defend frontline health and education spending? Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has apparently told colleagues that he expects to be the most hated man in Britain within a matter of months of the election following the emergency budget he is planning shortly afterwards.
In these circumstances what would become of Labour leadership hopeful Carwyn Jones’s aspiration to increase Welsh education spending by 1 per cent above the overall increase in the Welsh block grant? How would that be calculated if rather than an increase there were an actual decline? Government sponsored organisations have been told that they should be planning for reductions of up to 20 per cent in their budgets over the next three years.

We can safely predict, therefore, that an immediate consequence of a Conservative victory would be the onset of an agonised Welsh debate over public spending. These will be uncharted waters. In the decade of devolution budget planning for coming years has been an extrapolation of what has come before, generally following an upward flowing curve. A culture shift will be required to cope with a curve going in the opposite direction.

The courageous response will be to think strategically. That is to say, a structural shift in budgets of the kind that is coming will mean digging up the foundations of large swathes of spending policy and thinking in terms of a new architecture.

One approach explored within the civil service is to divide Wales up regionally and calculate the total amount of public expenditure allocated it by all sources within the remit of the Welsh government and see what strategic back office savings can be wrung out. This has the smack of a war-time approach, with the a steamrollering of objections from organisations on the ground, whether they be Universities, local authorities or health boards.

It will be ironic of the loudest objections to such radical measures that imply the overruling of local discretion and autonomous cost centres come from the new breed of local representatives that will accompany a Conservative administration in Westminster. These will be the new Conservative MPs in Wales. Given the kind of Conservative victory being anticipated we can expected the present crop of three to jump to around a dozen.

A key question for the future of Wales and Welsh politics is the extent to which this new band of politicians will be willing to coalesce with the Conservative Group in the National Assembly to defend Welsh interests, rather than merely toeing a party line in London. Certainly, the future prospects of the Conservatives taking a leading role in the Welsh Government may depend on it.

For it is no secret that Labour strategists are relying on the impact of a Conservative London government to persuade voters back into their fold come the 2011 Assembly elections. Therein lies an opportunity for Welsh Conservatives to demonstrate that they have as much clout and determination as the next party in standing up for Wales, and in particular the Welsh budget.

A key test in this arena will undoubtedly prove to be the future of the National Assembly itself. Sir Emyr Jones-Parry will be speaking at the conference about the unfolding of his Convention report’s recommendations on the Assembly taking its next step towards full legislative powers.  The Conservative Group in the Assembly are fully signed up to this agenda. And they’re also on record as favouring a move towards a needs-based formula for calculating the Welsh block grant, which would entail a much-needed boost to Welsh resources.

Will the new crop of Welsh Conservative MPs in Westminster follow these leads? If we could answer that question with confidence we would have a better idea of what life under the Tories will be like.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. For more information on the "Life Under the Tories' conference click on the Events button on this wesbite.

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