Coronavirus has exposed the main weakness of Welsh Conservatives: as an essentially regional branch of an English party, its success has always relied on its national parent. This structure has made it a strong political force too. In December, the sweeping majority Boris Johnson won was largely down to his successful penetration of Red Wall seats, many of which were in North Wales.
But as Welsh support for the UK government’s response to the pandemic continues to plummet – while Labour first minister Mark Drakeford’s approval ratings soar, coinciding with an interesting surge of support for an independent Wales – it is evident that ahead of next year’s Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives should seek to distance themselves from their London HQ.
The ambition to establish political independence within devolved branches of national parties isn’t a new phenomenon in Welsh politics. Rhodri Morgan, the late first minister, successfully campaigned for a distinctive identity for Welsh Labour – or ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff and Westminster. There is no doubt that his attempts to create a Welsh political party was the reason for his long-term success in Cardiff and why he is rightfully known as the father of devolution in Wales.
For the Welsh Conservatives, the need to be a credible Wales-focused party – and formally recognised as such – is arguably far more critical than it ever was for Welsh Labour. The party’s current situation in Wales is laughable. Leadership is shared between three men – Paul Davies, leader of the party in the Senedd, Welsh chairman Lord Davies of Gower, and Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart – who are unknown among the public.
To make matters worse, the Welsh Conservatives have over recent weeks become obsessed with political point-scoring, most recently taking credit for the relaxation of the five mile travel rule in the country. Our own Conservative Secretary of State has also used Twitter to goad Welsh people that Wales is too poor to raise enough money to support itself. It isn’t a good look.
A revived Welsh Conservative party needs to recognise it is now dealing with a public that has only recently discovered the effectiveness of devolution – 20 years after the Welsh people narrowly voted in favour of it – and this will impact how people vote in future devolved elections. But if this isn’t enough to convince Welsh Tories, the lessons from Scotland are, as ever, perceptively revealing for Wales’ political landscape.
Take Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives, which enjoyed considerable popularity earlier this decade – a testament to how the party was able to put forward a credible Unionist voice in an even more challenging political environment. This transformation was, of course, largely down to Davidson’s momentum and charisma. It only reaffirms how important it is for Welsh Conservatives not only to be a party of Wales, but to be led by someone who believes that it should be.
This supposedly radical idea of putting Welsh interests before, or rather, on an equal footing with those across Britain can also be traced further back in Welsh history, to the man who is arguably our greatest statesman alongside Winston Churchill: David Lloyd George. As Roy Hattersley documents in his biography of the only Welsh speaking prime minister (appropriately titled The Great Outsider) even at the end of the 19th century Lloyd George fought for an exclusively Welsh political party.
Although he failed in his endeavour – Wales only welcomed a form of Home Rule over a hundred years after the decisive meeting which ended Lloyd George’s hopes in 1896 – the former Liberal prime minister was arguably one of the first national politicians to see why Wales should be run by the Welsh, and to focus, early on his career at least, on issues which were important to the people of Wales.
It is remarkable that the Conservatives – the most successful political party in British history – have yet to successfully convey their enthusiasm for governing Wales. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth’s attempts throughout the early years of devolution to guide the Conservatives closer to the people they serve – including considering a proposal from David Melding to change its name to ‘Ymlaen’ (Welsh for 'forward') – have now been hopelessly lost by a party whose strategy appears to be focused entirely on centralising power in Downing Street.
During the coronavirus crisis, it has been clear that Welsh Conservatives have been out of touch with the sentiments of the public more than any other time during devolution. Now, therefore, is the time for a radical re-think of Welsh Conservatism, and what should be an opportunity to put clear red water between London and Cardiff. And all it will take is a radical Welsh Conservative to initiate that process – we are still waiting to see who that will be.
Theo Davies-Lewis is an associate at Finsbury and is from Llanelli, west Wales