The new Gang of Four

Daran Hill argues that the sacking of four Conservative AMs from front bench posts is a self-inflicted wound

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.

Daran Hill is Managing Director of Positif Politics.

17 thoughts on “The new Gang of Four

  1. I think the sacking of Antoinette Sandbach is the biggest blow here. She was a strong speaker on farming it was a joy to see her make Alun Davies look silly week after week.

  2. Speculation from Daran masquerading as informed…

    These AMs were sacked because they ignored a three line whip after a full group vote. How on earth anyone can feel sorry for them is beyond me. They were selfish and refused to adhere to cabinet responsibility. End of. Story.

    This is your third blog on this now.

  3. I don’t see why everyone is seeing the bigger picture? Wales is not devolved, it is funded by London. I live in Oscar’s constituency and from my understanding he and the others are supporting the Conservative Party’s lines 100%. It would appear that the others are not. So what does that mean now? Will these four be bought back and all of the others kicked out? Forget the whip in Wales, that means nothing to anyone-because those who voted FOR it have clearly gone against the government in London. Wales is not independent and people need to realise this.I say well done to all four for standing up for us and their beliefs.

  4. Daran, you a big buddy of Nick’s aren’t you? Think you were out together on conference night in Swansea?

  5. Daran, the alternative argument is that Andrew RT, having not run on a ticket of continuing Nick Bourne’s theme of making the party ‘more Welsh’, has surprised many by the way he has embraced the agenda. Specifically on the way income tax powers would work he has taken a robust view that his party’s best tactic would be to argue for selective tax cuts and this could only be achieved if the Silk Commission’s recommendation about giving the Assembly greater flexibility that Scotland currently has is implemented. This is a position that goes with the grain of the consensus amongst other parries in Wales. David Jones directly challenged his authority on this point, firstly saying RT was only speaking for himself and then yesterday encouraging his strongest supporters within the Welsh group to rebel. Faced with that, what choice did RT have?

  6. James, this is my first blog on this topic. And it’s struck a chord with a number of Conservatives who have retweeted it, despite my misinformation.
    Brian, yes I’m a friend of Nick’s. And some others who were sacked. And lots who remain in the shadow cabinet.
    Lee, I’ve no doubt Andrew has behaved with sincerity over taking on that personal position. And the difference of opinion with the Secretary of State is clear. I just find it baffling why a three line whip would be issued over a position that originated as a personal one and now has seemingly become a totem for the entire group. They should have ALL abstained on the Plaid amendment as it was just there to make mischief.

  7. Darren I argued for the position that you outlined in your comment. Local Councils have more tax raising autonomy than the Welsh Government does at the moment. The equivalent position of the Welsh Government at the moment is that of a child being handed “pocket money” by a parent. They can choose how to spend it but have no responsibility for earning it. Although that is not the position in my home where reward is linked to results and decisions taken! I know that Nick, Janet, Oscar and I stood up for what we believed in. I know that we all stand by that decision. David TC Davies summed it up perfectly in his comments. Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group, he had no need to do so. I know that his influence and thoughts on his preferred position could have been expressed through the channels that he has open to him.

    If there is to be a referendum on this issue then Andrew not only has to be able to take his shadow cabinet with him, but he will need to persuade both the party and the wider public that this is the right course to follow. The Labour Party do not want to have the financial responsibility for the decisions that they take. Look at the £52 million on an airport, but cuts to the NHS, Local Government Budgets etc. The Labour party in Cardiff and Westminster are hugely divided on this issue. The focus has shifted from the bonkers position of Carwyn in Cardiff and Owen Smith in Westminster. Perhaps your next blogpost will be on what Carwyn said, namely that he doesn’t want to have fiscal responsibility for his decisions. I wonder why!

  8. Antoinette, you are somewhat misrepresenting what happened. The Group line (as voted by a clear majority) was to back the policy that Paul Davies has developed as Shadow Finance Minister. What your band of ‘heroic’ martyrs did was to undermine the position of him and the vast majority of your colleagues.

    Let’s be clear, before you start feeling too sorry for yourself – this wasn’t a vote on military intervention, organ donation, or abortion, smacking, smoking… It was a technical position on taxation on a draft bill which the majority of your constituents probably don’t understand.

    Don’t be a hero.

  9. Antoinette, “The Labour party in Cardiff and Westminster are hugely divided on this issue. The focus has shifted from the bonkers position of Carwyn in Cardiff and Owen Smith in Westminster. Perhaps your next blogpost will be on what Carwyn said, namely that he doesn’t want to have fiscal responsibility for his decisions. I wonder why!”
    I wrote last week on the split in Labour here on 10th Feb. Harold Wilson said a week is a long time in politics. How true. What the last few days have done is shift the focus entirely from the big split in Labour to a now even bigger one in the Conservatives. It is an act of immense charity to the Labour Party.

    James: ” It was a technical position on taxation on a draft bill which the majority of your constituents probably don’t understand.” Precisely. Which makes sacking a third of the group over it ridiculous. Couldn’t have put it better myself. And I tried.

  10. Daran – A 3-line whip is a 3-line whip. It was Paul Davies’ policy and it was a position agreed by the majority of the group. These AMs put their leader in an impossible position and let down their colleagues.

    My point about it not being an issue of conscience is that Antoinette and her selfish colleagues should have swallowed her objections and gone along with her COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY as a Shadow Cabinet Member – she didn’t and had to go.

    If you rustle around in that old plastic bag of yours you might even find Nick’s old manifesto…

  11. James, imposing a three line whip on a technical issue and an amendment criticising your own party is just plain silly. That’s the fundamental point here: the whole thing from whipping to execution is just clumsy and unnecessary.

    Let’s be honest about what’s gone on here. Andrew and David Ian Jones had a public spat some weeks ago and it’s spiralled out of control. I’m open that Andrew and those advising him on this have made a bad error of judgement. You don’t sack people for supporting party policy.

    Unless that’s the real story …. Who does make Welsh Conservative party policy? Perhaps that’s where the real difference of opinion lies: a question of power.

    So who does? The Secretary of State for Wales? The rest of the UK government? The Welsh management board? The shadow Cabinet? The Welsh Conservative group? The Welsh conference?

    I don’t have an old plastic bag. Point me to the resource you mention via the internet and I’ll have a look and try and make sense of the point you are making.

  12. As a former Chief Whip – at City Council level about 20 years ago – it is surprising that the Assembly Conservative Group constitution does not include a clause prohibiting members opposing national Party policy. Most people who vote Conservative do so because of the national brand name and would expect that national policy should take precedence over a local Group vote unless there was very strong reason to the contrary.

    The real story here is not the Ruritanian farce about meaningless job titles – it is not as if any of these people ever really stood any chance of serving in a future Conservative administration of the Assembly – but the ongoing disconnection between the Conservative Party and its target voters, including some of us who would quite like to have a good reason to vote Conservative. The majority of people who voted Conservative in the last Assembly elections – remember them? – are strong Unionists, who would probably vote in a referendum by a margin of 80-90% against the Assembly having any tax powers at all.

    James Mercado is quite wrong when he says Conservative voters do not understand what is going on. They tend to be educated, informed, accomplished people who understand a lot of things better than the politicians – and they are not happy.

  13. Love the Dog & Duck reference. However, given that the DPO used it with a raucous hostelry in mind, perhaps this might have been a hot topic?

  14. Lee, editing out unnecessarily offensive comments is fine. Banning people from this site because you don’t like their views is not. A number of us will no longer comment on Clickon until you repent of your censorship policy.

  15. I just comment as a Welsh Conservative party member,albeit one who can prove he is descended from Owain Glybdwr’s sister Lowry. I detest the Welsh Nationalist Party because they try to claim that if you want to be a Nationalist you have got to accept their very left wing policies as well ! I do not trust them or the socialist party to run the Welsh Economy for improving the quality of life for the Welsh people .Hence I believe that the only way to ensure that the Wales gets a fair deal is for it to be offered the democratic deal of being given a referendum every time the Assembly wants to claim a greater share of our income tax.The Assembly will thus also need to demonstrate that it is doing a good successful job to win each such a referendum.
    Having stated my views as a paid up Conservative party member of Newport West Constituency I make two points. I am disappointed that only four out our 60 Assembly Members are refusing to vote for more tax without having to justify the reason.
    When we have to select more, would be ,Assembly members next year for the elections in 2016 Nick Ramsey ( I’m a paid up member of Monmouth Constituency as well) and Mohammed Ashgar will get my whole hearted votes.They have done a good job representing our views.
    I believe that many of my fellow electors, think the same way and I do any hope they will act as I intend when choosing candidates for the next Assembly

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