With the election now in full swing, I’ve been asked to structure this look at the Welsh Conservatives by dealing with Strengths and then Weaknesses but that is a pretty impossible direction. Craving the editor’s indulgence, I will swap them around and deal with the biggest section first…
Interviewed by the BBC in the last few days, Wales’ least inflammatory Conservative politician Nick Ramsay perhaps summed it up in understatement: it’s a “unique situation” and “it hasn’t gone as smoothly as one might have wanted,” resulting in the “stickiest start of the lot.”
There is a chasm between a tragedy of calculated wrongdoing and a comedy of errors, but the Conservative campaign in Wales has had its share of both. Taking the tragedy first, the lack of remorse and the slowness of the party’s reaction to the involvement of former candidate Ross England in the collapse of a rape trial, has been morally contemptible and politically inept. It has mired former Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns in a crisis that has already achieved the almost unimaginable and catapulted Wales to the head of the UK news, cast doubt on the credibility of other key Conservative players, and shown those running the comms operation as unfit for the job.
Little needs to be added to the denunciation of England made by Darren Millar in a podcast I chaired last week: “He should not be a candidate and, if he doesn’t resign, he should be ejected from the approved candidates list that we have here in Wales for the Welsh Assembly, and certainly not be able to stand under the Conservative banner.” The little that must be added is that this statement should have come from the Welsh Conservatives two weeks earlier, along with a full apology to the woman concerned.
Of lesser impact and lesser significance have been candidate social media postings and the curious hokey cokey of the former MP for Brecon and Radnorshire Chris Davies getting selected – albeit briefly – in Ynys Mon. Then came a mad rush to get candidates in place for key seats like Aberconwy and Ynys Mon, involving a significant number of candidacies imported from England. All of which has led to a deluge of bad headlines and groupthink sneering amongst people who comment on such matters. The BBC especially has been obsessed with these “sins” of the Conservatives, unbelievably letting the Chris Davies story run for a whole twenty four hours at the head of their bulletins.
So powerful has been the draw of that group think that I have joined in a couple of times myself. There is absolutely no way to deny that the first two weeks of this campaign has been an utter omnishambles for the Welsh Conservatives. From candidate selections to candidate deselections, it has been an amateur operation.
The biggest strength the Conservatives have is that these misjudgements do not seem to matter. Both the last Welsh Barometer polls show the Conservatives either ahead or in a very healthy position, which see them forecast to more than double their seats in Wales. It will of course be interesting to see how well the Conservatives poll next time a Barometer appears but, if the UK polls released this weekend can be believed in any way, the party has a commanding lead over Labour and that is barely changing.
Which leads me to believe that the obvious weaknesses of the Conservative campaign in Wales which we have obsessed over, magnified and ridiculed for over a fortnight simply do not matter very much. This isn’t to belittle the Ross England episode in any way – and I am intrigued to see local polling in the Vale of Glamorgan during the campaign as I suspect it might buck other trends – but there is absolutely no evidence as yet of any of the Conservative campaign weaknesses actually damaging them in Wales.
After all, most Conservative voters do not look to BBC Wales or the Western Mail or even ClickonWales for their analysis. They are locked into UK sources for their news and opinions. And – shock horror – they may not have even heard of the rest of the debacle even if the Cairns stuff has actually cut through.
The Conservatives are also fortunate in their opponents. The Remain Alliance fashioned in Wales is in reality no such thing. Yes, it targets Brexit supporting would be MPs in Brecon & Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire as well as challenging Alun Cairns in the Vale of Glamorgan. But it misses out other areas where the Conservatives are championing Brexit, and doing so without the Brexit Party on the ballot paper. Monmouth, Clwyd West, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Aberconwy and Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South are all free runs. The fact that the Remain Alliance has chosen to prioritise its focus on Remain-supporting Labour candidates in Cardiff Central, Pontypridd and Llanelli rather than actually take on Brexit backers with any sort of popular front is one of the biggest boosts the Conservatives have yet received.
Indeed, both the unilateral disarmament move by the Brexit Party and the fake, self serving selections of the Remain Alliance have aided the Conservative Party in Wales as much as anything it has yet managed to do itself.
As someone who works alongside a person who has never lived down crystal balling in an online article that Elin Jones would easily beat Leanne Wood to become Plaid leader, I know the dangers of being too firm in predictions. Yet, at the moment, I think the Conservatives will end this General Election close to double the seven seats they entered this election with in Wales, and certainly pass the eleven seats they won in 2015.
I will also go further and suggest that at least one or two of these seats will be won be a candidate who lives outside Wales. Because, when it comes down to it, Conservative voters and potential voters just aren’t part of the same analytical groupthink that dominates the Welsh airwaves and, most particularly, the Welsh social media scene.
Oh, and one more little prediction. The omnishambles will result in a restructuring of command and communications with the Welsh Conservatives, with Paul Davies more likely than ever to become the first leader of the Welsh Party rather than just the Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Assembly.
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