John Osmond says the new leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly will find it difficult to reach out
What are we to make of the Welsh Conservative leadership campaign which ended yesterday with Andrew R.T. Davies beating Nick Ramsey by a much narrower margin than many had predicted? In fact, the Welsh Conservative party was virtually split, with Davies winning 53.3 per cent of the vote against 46.7 per cent for Ramsey, on a 49 per cent turn-out. On just under 2,500 votes cast, Davies won by 153 votes, according to Ramsey’s campaign manager – former Cardiff North AM Jonathan Morgan.
Well, I for one learned that Andrew R. T. Davies is a proud family man with four children who is still actively involved in working his farm in the Vale of Glamorgan. He emphasised endlessly that, in contrast to his opponent, he had hinterland and experience outside politics. Nick Ramsey, I discovered was brought up in Labour territory in Torfaen, and was a driving instructor there before he ventured into University and thence into the Cardiff Bay bubble as a political researcher.
It was also quite plain that neither man likes the other very much. This came across in the body language that played out between the two in the joint interview they offered BBC Wales’ Dragons Eye political programme at the start of the campaign just over a month ago.
This was a lacklustre campaign and one the Conservatives did not want. They had a pretty successful Assembly election, gaining votes and seats and became the main Opposition party in the Assembly. But this very success, including winning Montgomery from the Liberal Democrats, resulted in the loss of their leader Nick Bourne, who fell off the list in Mid and West Wales. Meanwhile, Jonathan Morgan, widely tipped to be his successor, narrowly lost his Cardiff North seat to Julie Morgan, mainly due to Liberal Democrat voters defecting to Labour.
I think the Conservatives were unwise to go straight into a leadership election. It proved to be entirely about personality rather than policies, vision, or the options the Welsh Conservatives now have for positioning themselves within the Welsh political firmament. The precipitate election prevented the new Group in the Assembly, which has five new members, settling down and negotiating the dynamics of their relationships into some shape. In the process a wider range of leadership options might have emerged.
As it is they now have to come to terms with a leader for whom the Assembly Group on its own may well not have voted. It doesn’t help either that Andrew RT Davies walked out of the Shadow Cabinet towards the end of the last session after a spat with Nick Bourne.
Under Nick Bourne the Welsh Conservatives had a project. This was to embrace the devolution process and turn themselves into a party of government in Wales. Theoretically, the latter could happen in one of two ways, either by the party going into coalition or, much more unlikely, winning an outright majority. Bourne’s strategy was to await or contrive circumstances in which a coalition might be possible. This very nearly happened in the wake of the 2007 election when he skilfully played the hand he had been dealt and negotiated what, for a brief moment, looked like becoming a Rainbow coalition with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats.
Now, as a result of political circumstances, but measureably reinforced by the election of Andrew RT Davies, the liklihood of such an opportunity recurring has receded far into the political distance, probably by at least two or even three elections.
What can the Wesh Conservatives do to speed up the prospect? There is little more they can do to embrace devolution. Helping to secure the referendum result last March, with the Assembly gaining legislative powers, is about as far as they want to go, and probably a good deal further than many of their grass root supporters wanted in the first place.
There is the ‘Calman-style’ Commission that has been promised, but this now looks as though it will be delayed while the Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan sets about the difficult task of trying to achieve a consensus on its remit with First Minister Carwyn Jones. He wants replacement of Barnett on the table with a fairer funding formula as the priority; she wants to devolve some tax varying powers to allow and underpin the Assembly’s ability to borrow. These negotiations may be trumped by whatever the Scots demand and succeed in getting in the run-up to their independence referendum.
Meanwhile, from the Cardiff Bay perspective the Conservative-led administration at Westminster will become increasingly toxic as the spending cuts bite in the coming year, benefits are cut for the poorest in our communities, and the numbers of unemployed inexorably rise. The hostile silence that greeted David Cameron’s rather crass remarks in the Senedd this week about hoping the Welsh Government would join with him in his English project for reducing and ‘privatising’ elements of the public sector, was eloquent testimony to what is in store.
All this is not an easy environment for the new Conservative leader to start making a mark. He has first to reach out and make alliances within his own Group. Then he has to do the same within the wider Assembly if he is to hope to wield any real influence. Both are a tough ask.