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.
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