Daran Hill reflects on the leadership contest, and considers what’s next for the party’s new leader
This campaign “caused me no problems at all,” said Byron Davies, chair of the Welsh Conservatives, as he announced the new leader of the Assembly Group. You could tell he meant it.
The positive, poised and professional campaigns from both Paul Davies and Suzy Davies have shown them both to be assets to their party and to politics. The battle between them for group leader has been a rather cordial affair that caused the party few headaches. Neither candidate or their supporters played games in seeking nominations. Like the contest as a whole, that part was done without fuss and every AM in the group fell into line behind one or other of the Davies’, even though David Melding was his usual creative and quirky self in nominating one but voting for the other.
In terms of messaging, the context was equally uncontentious. Both candidates veered away from attacks or surprise pledges. At no time did either Davies say the party would go nowhere under the other or they were doomed to lose the next Assembly election if the other one won. Neither of them wanted to cut support for the Welsh language (hardly surprising since both are fluent Welsh speakers, the first time any party has been given such a choice since 1998). And nobody said the Assembly should be abolished (not even the members, shock horror).
Instead it was, to the outside world, a gentle tussle between two Assembly Members on the same wing of the party. Interestingly both of them offered hard line appeal around seeing Brexit through, which is evidently what the party wanted to hear if recent polling is to believed. It certainly is what Tory Central Office and 10 Downing Street wanted to hear. Everyone in the Tory hierarchy will be pleased by the way in which the latest Davies to lead the group has been eased into post without external rancour and recrimination.
Conversely, the price for such a contest was its lack of media appeal. There was very little division to exploit and very little discord to explode. A minor spat about whether constituency or regional AMs were best placed to speak for the whole of Wales or to lead the party to future victory was a blip more than a bust up, and the type of squabble that Harry Hill would have resolved with one of his hyperbolic urgings: “Which is best to lead the Welsh Conservative party? A regional member who has never won a first past the post election? Or a first past the post member from a far corner of Wales? There’s only one way to find out – Figgggggggggggggghhhhtttt!”
That’s not to say that there weren’t differences, but they were more differences of emphasis than differences of policy. Suzy was more focused on specific policy areas, while Paul repeatedly emphasised the need to consult the members on key decisions. In trying to decipher the contest and what it meant, the latter pledge was particularly important since it gave a particular clue as to why this contest had come about. Half the group and a number of MPs clearly had concerns about the way in which in Andrew RT Davies had engaged with them. They were the same half who decided a change was needed and in Paul they coalesced around a figure who promised repeatedly to listen.
His audience is Ffos Las was actually very light on elected politicians (Darren Millar was the only non candidate there) but Paul’s first job has surely to be building a better flow of communication between AMs and MPs and other parts of the voluntary party. This contest may have born out of division, but it has the ability to heal if its resolution is utilised properly.
The Welsh media has, just like in 2011, pretty much ignored the contest. They have never had much of interest in the Conservatives and this time round the scraps in the other parties have, to be fair, appeared more interesting. But I do think they have done a disservice to Paul Davies by pretending he has little oomph. His critics during the campaign mentioned his colourlessness and beige suit. But he is no Iain Duncan Smith and does not need to adjust the volume. As a clever, consensual and considerate politician, Paul is indeed a “safe” sort of figure but that is perhaps one of his great strengths. As a friend said to me, “After the past few years every party could do with a Paul.”
At the despatch box he is also a skilled operator. As I have written previously written here, Paul Davies is slow to be roused but indignant when he does so. His stand ins at First Minister’s Questions have also been uniformly punchy. He is not scared of challenging the Welsh establishment. Those of us who have been fighting the corner of Carl Sargeant see him as an ally in the same way RT has been, and I was personally pleased to hear him commit to be “equally as strong as Andrew” because the Sargeant “family has been treated appallingly.”
But, of course, it matters far more what is said outside the confines of the National Assembly than that which happens within it. Paul Davies needs now to lead a team which takes a fight to the country in the most challenging of circumstances. His commitment that Suzy Davies “has a huge contribution to make” to this will be welcome to her numerous fans who respect her ability to connect and enthuse.
So what happens next? I suspect most of the early moves and decisions will be based on a long term strategy which, as Paul conceded in his victory speech, has to recognise failure as well as success. It will also be heavily influenced by another contest over which the Conservatives have no control. The Plaid Cymru leadership fight which is still ongoing will produce a leader who will or won’t entertain the idea of working with the Conservatives after the 2021 Assembly election. Playing devil’s advocate, I would suggest the Plaid leadership election is as heavily influenced by that dynamic as any other political question.
For the Welsh Conservatives, they have done two important things in electing Paul Davies at this point. Firstly, they have a leader pledged to let the party decide about any future coalition deals with others. Secondly, this careful and considerate politician is perhaps the closest they have ever come to electing a leader who is, on many levels, the right sort of Welsh Conservative to make that deal with other parties to get Welsh Labour out of government.
And that, as Paul Davies keeps repeating, is exactly what he wants to do.
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