The Power Struggle

Lee Waters offers his analysis on the tensions within the two main unionist parties which he says will have repercussions for years to come.

The last ten days has witnessed tensions within the two main unionist parties which will have repercussions for years to come.

Two sleepy Westminster institutions, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, both thought past their useful life, suddenly came alive and set in chain a series of events which caused great discomfort in Cardiff Bay.

A seemingly casual put down by the Welsh Secretary, and an incendiary speech by his shadow, lit a long fuse which caused consternation in Cathays Park, and set off a bomb in the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly. But while it is possible to see these events through the prism of personalities and rivalries, both are about far more – the question of where political power in Wales resides?

It was Owen Smith’s speech that commanded the most attention initially.  Labour’s Shadow Welsh Secretary said the offer of income tax raising powers for the Welsh Government was ‘a trap’.  Pro-devolution Conservatives were quick to try and make political capital with their claim that he had ‘completely demolished the Silk Commission recommendations.  In practice, Owen Smith, was largely repeating his party’s ambivalence to a power they hadn’t asked for and a referendum they didn’t think could be won. The real kick came in an essay Smith wrote for the IWA a few days later. In it Smith went beyond his previous arguments that support for broader tax devolution was conditional on putting in place fairer funding for Wales.  He warned that the recommendations of the Silk Commission threatened the unraveling of the Union:  “What is a Union if not, at base, an economic and social alliance through the pooling of risk and the sharing of rewards?”, he wrote.

Carwyn Jones has been disciplined in his response.  Though he had no intentions of triggering income tax powers, he will resent having his negotiating position dictated by a Shadow Minister in Westminster.  But by putting his case in such fundamental terms, and ruling out income tax powers for the Assembly in the near future, Owen Smith has caused significant damage to the First Minister’s attempts to negotiate increased borrowing levels.  The intervention also sets the tone for discussions between the First Minister and Ed Milliband on the inclusion of other parts of the Silk Commission report in the next Labour manifesto.

Even though Carwyn Jones is Labour’s most senior politician in the UK to exercise power, he doesn’t have a free hand to decide his party’s devolution policy. Power devolved remains power retained.  After all it was a Westminster Government who set-up the Silk Commission, and MPs are keen to remind AMs that they remain the arbiters of the constitution.

It’s a message the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, has been privately relaying to the Conservative leader in the Assembly for some time.  Andrew RT Davies has been resisting, and last week paid the price.

After sacking his leadership rival Nick Ramsay, and three other Shadow Cabinet members for defying a three line whip, he had to face reports that he is now “completely isolated” and was subjected to “100% universal criticism” from his party’s Welsh board.  Cardiff Bay insider Daran Hill judged it to be an epic blunder – the wrong issue, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

The announcement of the sackings by Twitter wrong-footed the commetariat, who did not seem to see it coming, and in the fog war they chose to focus on a process story rather than the power story.  But as the tale unfolded the power struggle at the heart of the episode has become clearer.

In a deeply revealing interview on Radio Wales’s Sunday Supplement programme Andrew RT Davies acknowledged that people within his party have been trying to undermine his leadership since he was narrowly elected two and half years ago.  He said “There have been so-called texts, source briefings – no-one putting their name, but source briefings – and situations orchestrated that obviously make life a little awkward shall we say… within the party”.

Strong supporters of his, the programme host Vaughan Roderick put to him, had suggested that it is the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, who was behind attempts to destabilise him.  Andrew RT Davies didn’t demur, and noted, pointedly, “I and David Cameron are the only two people who have been voted on by the membership”.

Mr Jones sees himself as the legitimate leader of the Conservatives in Wales – a tension that has been familiar feature within both Labour and the Tories since 1999. And the Welsh Secretary has not been terribly subtle about his attempts to pressurize Davies into taking his lead from the Westminster leadership.

The struggle for dominance took on a more substantive dimension over the response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission.  David Jones has little patience with the view of all the Welsh party leaders that the income tax powers he’s proposing to devolve are unusable in their present form. They would want the flexibility to vary the three bands of income tax independently from one another. But the Treasury won’t wear it, and David Jones has been trying to get Andrew RT to sign up to a policy of cutting all tax bands by 0.5%. He thinks it is affordable and would be a vote winner for the Welsh Tories. Davies would prefer the flexibility to target tax cuts at individual income bands, most likely a cut in the top rate of tax to encourage high earners to move to Wales.

Far from being an academic distinction it is live political question at Westminster as David Jones has to pilot a draft Bill through the Commons to enact the power.  It is more difficult for him to swat opposition attempts to change the Bill when amongst their number is the ‘Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly’ (to give him his official title).  But instead of an elegant side-step the Welsh Secretary dismissed Davies’ evidence as a mere ‘personal view’.  Andrew RT rose to the bait and quickly issued a statement which made clear he was speaking on behalf of “the entire membership of the Welsh Conservative group in the National Assembly”.

But it seems he wasn’t.

Five members of the increasingly fractious Assembly group favoured supporting David Jones’ position (Byron Davies was, fortuitously, absent on the day of the vote and therefore spared the choice of following his instincts).  The internal dynamics are complex with elements of ideology, ego, opportunity, positioning and personal friendship at play.  But against the backdrop of a challenge to his authority from both the Welsh Secretary and his internal opponents, Andrew RT decided to make a (largely insignificant) vote a loyalty test.

Just as David Jones could have finessed the difference of view when he went before the Welsh Select Committee, Andrew RT Davies could have avoided a breech with his band of rebels over the vote in the Assembly.  But having decided to issue a three-line whip he could not have ignored the direct challenge to his authority.

On this site one of the rebels, Antoinette Sandbach, commented  “Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group”.  Quite so. That was the point.

This crisis is not just a challenge to his leadership – though it clearly is – it represents an existential crisis for the Welsh Conservatives.

The political project begun by Nick Bourne of tackling the perception that the Conservatives are an ‘English’ party in Wales was, perhaps unexpectedly, taken up by Andrew RT Davies.  David Jones challenged that agenda when he was the junior Wales Office Minister under Cheryl Gillan and continues to do so now he sits around the Cabinet table.

Not all the rebels have the same motivation, but the outcome of their actions will be the same if they press their point.  The consequences of pushing Andrew RT Davies out do not appear to have been thought through, and would reverse the progress made by the party in the last ten years.

This story is far more significant than was first reported.  And it fits into a wider picture of MPs, worried about the momentum of the SNP, pushing back against the tide of devolution.

We are living through an extraordinarily fluid period of politics and it is impossible to discern how this story will play out.  But let’s be in no doubt about the forces at play, and the stakes they are playing for.

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA

12 thoughts on “The Power Struggle

  1. ” within the two main unionist parties”

    I love that Lee feels the need to clarify by adding the word ‘unionist’ here. Lol! It’s ok Lee, nobody would ever used the words ‘Plaid’ and ‘main’ in the same sentence :).

    No need to use the word ‘unionist’ at all really when 93% of the Welsh public have no desire for independence. Surely easier and more accurate to just refer to the other as ‘the minor separatist party’

  2. Bit late to the divisive party Lee – BBC Wales has already hammered this non-issue to death!

  3. Both Cameron and Millband lack any instinctive grasp of devolution as evidenced most recently by Cameron’s ill-considered PR trip to see flooding victims in Wales. On the money issue, what many English commentators (professional and ‘below the liners’) have not quite grasped is that the Treasury/Cameron cannot ‘finesse’ Barnett consequentials. Either there is new money or there isn’t.

  4. I suppose the question is how this is going to play out. Certainly the Welsh Conservatives are now an openly divided party, although the gang of four (plus one in absentia) seem to have accepted their punishment quietly and sit obediently on the backbenches for the time being. There are two possible scenarios to keep an eye on. The first is the Conservative Party itself and whether Nick Ramsay attempts to position himself for a second attempt at a leadership bid. The second is the voters’ perception of all of this. Historically, divided parties lose votes. So it will be interesting to see whether this quite public spat has registered in the minds of the electorate. 2016 is still a long way away so there is still time to rectify matters. But if Lee’s analysis is correct, and the fact that over a third of the Conservative AMs have rebelled suggest that he is, then this is not something that will be resolved by simply allowing matters to quieten down.

    My final point concerns the attitude of the Secretary of State for Wales. I do not share his political views and so do not count myself as his greatest fan. However, what irritates me more is his apparent contempt for the Assembly and its democratic mandate. His attitude seems to built around the role that existed before the creation of the National Assembly. Sitting on high, he has made a number of comments and attempted interventions that denote a disapproval of an elected body not particularly concerned with ensuring that its decisions cohere with Westminster policy.

    No doubt the other political parties will be exhibiting a certain degree of schadenfreude at Andrew RT Davies difficulties and discomfort which is only to be expected. But there should also be a degree of concern at the extent to which the SoS is willing to go to influence the political affairs of the Assembly itself. It brings into focus once again the necessity of having an SoS at all. The idea that a Government appointee is sent to Wales to keep an eye on the locals and what they’re up to does not sit well with the idea of a mature democracy where one would expect the institutions of Government to be able to communicate with each other without recourse to this now outdated position.

  5. Despite the superficial similarity, there is a fundamental difference between the situations of Labour and the Conservatives. Labour are finally beginning to realise some of the consequences of not thinking through what they did in 1997. The Conservatives, by contrast, are only having a little local difficulty which, one suspects, they will soon resolve in their traditional style. There is no doubt that the Secretary of State and the ‘Gang of Four’ are closer to the views of the majority of Conservative target voters and remaining party members than the Assembly Group.

    Rhobat’s questioning of the role of the Secretary of State takes us another little step closer to the fulfilment of another of the unheeded but accurate predictions of the ‘No’ campaign in 1997 – that Wales would lose its voice in the Cabinet.

  6. Lee is quite right . The split in the Tory group is on everyone’s lips. You can’t go into Waitrose in Barry without seeing groups of worried Tory matrons discussing the greatest split in UK politics since Joe Chamberlain established the Liberal Unionists. Meanwhile in the real world the majority of voters are worried about will the changes introduced by Gatland do the trick tomorrow night. This really is angels on the pinhead stuff to most people.

  7. Of course it is Jeff, what’s your point? I’m simply trying to point out there’s a deeper significance to this story that whether someone was on a train when found out if they were sacked – which seemed to be the focus on many.

  8. Do we measure the political significance of events by asking people in Barry’s supermarkets whether they think it important or not, or do we use our own judgment? As I said, we will only know the voter’s view on this when the election arrives in 2016. However, in addition to a sizeable rebellion, the leader has now publicly acknowledged that this is a problem that has been rumbling under the surface for years. And the manner of his dismissal of Nick Ramsay from his shadow cabinet suggests that this is a disagreement that, far from being fully played out, is in fact worsening. Should this proceed unabated, the consequences for the Conservatives electorally would be damaging and thus an opportunity for another party to become the official opposition would present itself. That would in turn change the political landscape of Wales. A divided Conservative Party would mean a move in Wales to the left.

    Your point, Jeff, seems to be that political analysis is of no value because it doesn’t engage the general public. Political analysis rarely does but that does not make it worthless. On my last trip to a Pengam Cardiff supermarket, I heard very little discussion on the latest advances in medicine and science. That does not mean that they have not happened or that they are insignificant.

    What I do find strange is criticising someone on a website, one of whose functions is analysis, for engaging in analysis.

  9. The only thing I see in Waitrose in Barry is hoards of well-heeled pensioners hoovering up the reductions.

  10. Missing the bigger picture here. There has just been a yougov poll that asked how many people would vote for devolution of tax raising powers to Wales. Look at the cross breaks on page 3; Just 16% of Welsh Tories would vote for ANY devolution of income tax raising powers.

    Now only one party has made it their policy to oppose fiscal devolution on principal…UKIP.
    Tories in both Cardiff and Westminster are fiddling while Rome burns,

  11. J Jones: “Now only one party has made it their policy to oppose fiscal devolution on principal…UKIP.”
    This shows how incredibly dangerous to the development of Wales this ‘Tea Party’ organisation is.

  12. “This shows how incredibly dangerous to the development of Wales this ‘Tea Party’ organisation is”

    Isn’t Welsh politics fascinating though Geraint? In any other country major parties strive to be in tune with majority opinion. Look again at the Yougov poll; only Plaid have a majority of its supporters in favour of the devolution of income tax raising powers. Labour, Conservatives and Lib-dem supporters are all against to varying degrees.

    What makes the news? An irrelevant spat between the Welsh Tories and Westminster Tories on details of a plan that has only 16% support in Wales amongst their supporters!

    What I suggest is happening, and will happen to a greater degree, is that people in Wales will see where devolution inevitably leads, that is to demands for Independence. Scotland is focussing minds and in Wales the population is overwhelmingly unionist. Until recently everyone has sailed along on the devolutionary tide whilst accepting that we aren’t heading to indepencence. Now we aren’t so sure. The “Tea Party” or UKIP is tapping into the growing dismay with the helplessness of the Welsh voters…..all parties but UKIP support something the majority don’t want.

    The dislocation between what political parties in Wales do and what the people want is hinted at again when you look at the figures for what should be cut in council austerity measures. Of Course everyone is antagonistic towards senior officer pay rates but look at the second popular area for cuts; Welsh Language provisions. Over 60% of Labour, Tory and Libdem Constituency voters would happily see Welsh Language provision reduced. Once again only Plaid is out of step. Support for Welsh has always been wide but shallow; under budgetary pressure support crumbles.

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