An outbreak of peace, but the war is not over


Daran Hill says moves towards reconciliation in the Welsh Tories will not last

It has been confirmed that the four Welsh Conservative Ams who were sacked from their front bench positions by Andrew RT Davies have been reappointed to the Shadow Cabinet

When the Conservative group imploded back in February over the sacking of four of its members for abstaining on a Plaid Cymru amendment there seemed little meaningful analysis other than the politics of personality. The issue at hand was whether the Welsh Government should have the freedom to vary individual tax rates, if the power is devolved (as the Silk Commission recomended), or should the ability to vary tax rates be restricted to make changes to all rates simultaneously (as the UK Government have decided) – the so-called ‘Lock Step’. Andrew RT Davies led his group into voting against the UK Government line, but the four rebels abstained – and were sacked from the Shadow Cabinet as a result.

I remain grateful to this website for publishing at that time my thoughts on the matter. It certainly caused a sharper focus to fall on some of the issues raised, and prompted many Conservatives to respond to me either online or in person. Not all of the responses were warm. Welcome to my world.

Roll on three months from February and the Assembly once more debated the issue of whether a lockstep should be introduced. At that time the four rebel AMs abstained again. This time they were joined by the entirety of the rest of the Conservative group. It was a total vindication and an acknowledgement that in the world of realpolitik that is exactly the position the group should have taken on the previous occasion. But hardly a word was said of this in the media. It seems like taking a friendly interest in the Conservative Party in Wales is a real minority sport.

But it has been a painful experience to watch from the sidelines as the official opposition in the Assembly failed to live up to its role. In fifteen years of observing the National Assembly, I have never known a political group so divided and rancorous, with emotional and political casualties on all sides. And I remember the Lib Dems after the rainbow melted away in 2007.

As I wrote five months ago, “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.” Which is why today’s announcement that the Lockstep Four are forgiven and embraced is very welcome both to their party and, to my mind, to the Assembly as a whole. In a Welsh political world dominated by Labour, the ruling party requires coherent and united challenge in every part of the Assembly.

The great reconciliation has already been written up by some as a consequence of the reshuffle in Westminster, with the departure of David Jones and the arrival of Stephen Crabb at the Wales Office. This is a conflation of facts. The two events are unconnected, though they are complimentary.

As Stephen has already demonstrated with his box office front page interview for the Western Mail he is a pragmatic individual and a clever communicator who will do much to further the cause of his party here in Wales. Gone are the dogmatic stances of his predecessor, who used a speech last year to reject key recommendations of his own Silk Commission, like a reserved powers model, before that Commission had even reported

The welcome to the new Secretary of State by the First Minister is also noteworthy in its aspiration for a more positive politics. He wants, we are told, “to ‘start afresh’ and work to tackle common challenges” and Stephen Crabb has verbally reciprocated. But doing so will not happen in every respect. Even if deals are now more easily brokered, and stand offs avoided, both sides know they still need to maintain the hyperbolic rhetoric in the run up to the next General Election. Offa’s Dyke will still continue to be “The line between life and death. ”The “War on Wales” is not over, there’s just a pause for some footie in the sun.

But as the Assembly doors close for the summer recess, there is a moment of peace both within the Conservative group and between two governments who should, but cannot, work more closely together.

Daran Hill is Managing Director of Positif Politics.

14 thoughts on “An outbreak of peace, but the war is not over

  1. I am curious about your comment that the great reconciliation and the appointment of Stephen Crabb are unconnected. Would you care to expand on that since it sounds counter-intuitive.

  2. Contents of Conservative manifesto for Westminster 2015 will be key. Enough of Silk II to retain credibility in Welsh civic society, media and Bourne-ite Tory grandee circles (ARTD’s political compass – at least since becoming leader) vs. “to here and no further” of the nervous centralists in London and floating Tory/Ukip unionists in the constituencies (Tory Central Office’s political compass). How Crabb manages this negotiation process, what package he comes up with, and crucially how slickly he communicates it will determine how unified the Tories will be in Wales. Get it wrong and a whole bunch of Welsh Tories (on either side of the argument) will have to soft-peddle on ‘Wales’ through the General Election if they are to retain their credibility.

  3. Don’t think I’m saying “moves towards reconciliation in the Welsh Tories will not last” but rather the reduction in verbal hostility between Conservative and Labour will not last. They are different things.

  4. Phil, what is ‘Welsh civic society’? Is there such a thing? Where does it meet? As for the Welsh media, even the Cameroons realise that there are not many Conservative votes to be had there.

    Nor are ‘Bourne-ite grandees’ a key target group: they could probably fill a telephone box, but their political influence would not extend much beyond it.

    So you are right that ‘floating Tory/UKIP Unionists in the constituencies’ ought to be Central Office’s political compass. They – or, as a swing voter in a very marginal constituency, we – really ought to be feeling the love right now. So where is it?

    We are getting mixed messages from all this. Although we are told that young Mr Crabb has a lot of potential, there is no denying that David Jones is a great loss to all true Unionists. Yet at the same time, the – predictable – rehabilitation of the Gang of Four is a minor Unionist victory.

    Much depends on the result of the Scottish Referendum. A ‘No’ victory by a margin of 10% or more would put independence on the back-burner for a generation, and so enable Mr Cameron to go into the General Election with unimpeachable Unionist credentials.

    Otherwise he is going to have to work a lot harder than he has done so far to give Unionists a positive reason to vote Conservative next year.

  5. “The two events are unconnected, though they are complimentary.”

    Darren, The two events are very much connected. To bring the 4 rebels back into the fold after such a short period of time can only be the result of the political demise of David Jones. The man who, by all indication, thought he was not only the leader of the English Conservatives in Wales but the Welsh Government too, could not stay after he rubbed Andrew RT Davies the wrong way.

    Once David Jones had got the chop the rebels are no longer a threat so the rebels could come back.

  6. I do wish JW Richards would stop using the word unionist when he means centralist or even colonialist. Everyone is a unionist except the small minority (10 per cent or so) who want independence. The equally extreme nostalgics who think a state of 60+ million people should all be run from the centre and who get alarmed by a moderate degree of devolution need another name to distinugish them from the majority of us unionists who favour some degree of devolution. David Jones, by the way, is not only a unionist; he is a liability as even David Cameron realised.

  7. JWR 12.56

    Don’t shoot the messenger John! I understand your sensitivity, having watched your party turn from intransigent centralism to pragmatic quasi-federalism in less than 20 years, but denying it is a real factor in contemporary Welsh Conservative decision-making and policy-making is a bit Canute-ish.

    Conservatives, and anyone else for that matter (e.g. UKIP, on whose current dilemma I commented only a few days ago), are perfectly entitled to campaign on an abolitionist or status quo basis, but there are serious electoral consequences to taking that line. The first option has extremely little popular support (and even less institutional support) and the second is just intellectually naïve (the current model of governance is untidy and inconsistent and irrespective of whether you favour greater autonomy or not).

    If the Conservative Party wants to disengage from Realpolitik to indulge the sentiments and emotions of some of its core voters, then it is welcome to do so. But it will cease to be a serious player in Wales and will spend 20 years in oblivion. Nick Bourne got that, ARTD is getting it (they say leadership is a lonely place, but it is also a sobering one), and Cameron et. al. are only interested in Welsh votes not Welsh ‘ideas’. If you don’t believe me when I say that Prof. Bourne has some influence, then I suggest you read the current Wales Bill going through Parliament, since a Conservative UK Government is about to devolve significant tax and borrowing powers, and they are doing so on the nod of their man on the Silk Commission. Power is exercised by those who turn up for the meeting… And perhaps that goes some way to answering your question about civic society.

    You disagree. You believe the ‘silent majority’ is out there just waiting for leadership. Michael Foot thought that too.

    Incidentally, I agree with you that a 10%+ margin in favour of no in Scotland mothballs the question for 10 or 20 years, but if you think it will put the brakes on more devolution you are seriously misguided. Centralist unionism will only revive if it intellectually revives, and I’m afraid to say that nobody is doing the hard yards on that at the moment. Who is working out the ‘philosophy’ of centralism?

  8. Mr Tredwyn, a Unionist is one who believes in a unitary state, simple. A unitary state is not necessarily a centralist state. Indeed you will recall from previous discussions that one of the main objections to the Assembly is its centralising tendency. So the pejorative application of the word centralist to Unionists is inaccurate. As for your use of the word colonialist, come on, you are better than that.

    Phil, absolutely no one is arguing for the status quo. Everyone agrees that the current arrangements make no sense. Everyone knows that they are going to change, one way or the other. There is still time to debate which way.

    Neither is anyone arguing that there is a silent majority in favour abolition of the Assembly, but there is widespread discontent with its performance and popular support for it seems only skin-deep beyond nationalist circles. A well-funded and well-organised campaign could swing public opinion very quickly.

    The Conservatives are the only group in a position to organise such a campaign. Most of their regular and target voters would be happy to see the Assembly gone. The problem is that in this, as with so many other issues, there is a disconnection between the Conservative Party and its target voters.

    Incidentally, you are inaccurate when you assume the Conservative Party is “your party.” I let my party membership lapse in 1999, when it no longer seemed to stand for anything, and I have been a genuine floating voter ever since. As it happens, attending Lady Thatcher’s Funeral last year made me nostalgic for the party of my youth and I really hope that they beat the ridiculous Mr Miliband next year, but my great fear is that this will not happen unless they show more respect for the vast majority of their target voters who do not share my personal sentimental reasons for voting for them.

    Lord Bourne is a courteous and intelligent man with genuine accomplishments beyond public life – unlike most of today’s politicians – but his failure to assert a radical alternative left the Conservatives without influence on the fringes of Welsh politics. The marginalisation you predict is in fact the history of the last 20 years.

    If your “civic society” is the few hundred people with high opinions of themselves who hang around Cardiff Bay and Llandaff, the Conservatives have no real power there anyway. Those are not the people the Conservatives need to be winning over.

    “Who is working out the philosophy of centralism [sic]?” Funny you should mention that…

    If, like Mr Tredwyn, you mean Unionism rather than “centralism,” you might check Amazon Kindle in about a month’s time – assuming none of the subsidised presses here will touch anything that contradicts their paymasters’ line.

  9. JWR

    “Who is working out the philosophy of centralism [sic]?” Funny you should mention that…

    I shall look forward to reading the same old Conservative conflation of economic individualism with political decentralism therefore John. Unless, that is, your budding philosopher is proposing that law making, tax setting and public service provision will be ‘devolved’ from Westminster to the individual, in which case he/she will have my full support. As something of an anarchist pragmatically masquerading as a nationalist, I have been waiting to read a credible manifesto of true individual liberty for many years.

  10. JWR

    “A well-funded and well-organised campaign could swing public opinion very quickly.”

    Sorry, John, one more bite of the cherry. Not good practice, but it’s Saturday and I’ve got a bit of time on my hands.

    A well-funded and well-organised campaign can change public opinion on just about anything John. The public doesn’t ‘have’ opinions, it is ‘given’ them; well it doesn’t if you believe any thing that post-structuralist cultural theory has to say on the matter. I have no doubt that the Welsh people could be persuaded to elect John Redwood as First Minister if the right campaign were put in place…

    But it will always come back down to power and influence, who has it, and what position they take on issues. What motivation do those with sufficient power, money or influence have for sponsoring this campaign? Why is it in their interest to abolish the Assembly? In what way has the existence of regional government delimited their power or wealth? Has it in fact enhanced it?

    I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but who’s going to bank roll this, and why?

  11. We are all entitled to propose our own definitions. Unionist as applied in e.g. the United States or Northern Ireland meant someone in favour of preserving a Union complete with devolved or federal features. I agree that the Welsh government is far too centralist within Wales and that in some areas it’s performance is disappointing but the solution is better politics in Wales not trying to remove politics from Wales.

  12. Mr Tredwyn, you are quite right that the word Unionist has different meanings in different contexts. The issue between us in the Welsh context is whether devolutionists and even federalists can be described as Unionists. You may believe honestly and sincerely that they can, but it seems hard to deny that the recent history of Scotland and Wales suggests that the 1997 referenda have weakened rather than strengthened the Union.

    Phil, are we closer to common ground than we might have imagined? If so, the real question, from one borderline-anarchist to another, is whether a Welsh Assembly or Parliament is more likely than the United Kingdom Parliament to deliver the objective we both seem to agree is desirable, that of maximum decentralisation, even, where possible, to the individual? At the moment, the evidence suggests otherwise, but if that ever changes, here is one pragmatic Unionist who would be open to conversion to Welsh Nationalism.

    Your second “bite at the cherry” may be slightly, if only slightly, too cynical about the manipulation of public opinion, but the point is moot because you are right that no one is going to bankroll a campaign that challenges the Establishment here. It is not that business in Wales has done well out of devolution, but, on the contrary, that business in Wales is weak. Moreover, such local business as exists here is therefore, as a result, disproportionately reliant on public sector contracts – and Welsh Labour in particular is famously intolerant of dissent.

  13. Phil said:

    “Contents of Conservative manifesto for Westminster 2015 will be key”

    I doubt it will include hardly anything at all to do with devolution. What did their previous manifesto say? You have to bear in mind Silk et al only happened because they’re in coalition.

  14. @ Sol

    “You have to bear in mind Silk et al only happened because they’re in coalition.”

    And may well be in coalition again next May. So the manifesto will be significant for what it does or does not include.

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