I wrote an article for the Sunday Times; it was published today on their website, while some of the text was used in a news report in the print version of the paper. For the benefit of those of you who don’t have access behind the Murdoch pay-wall (a group of people that also includes me!) here is the original text I submitted – which differs slightly from the text as published.
Devolution has been good to the Welsh Conservatives. Although they originally fought the idea of a Welsh Assembly, it ended up giving them a way back into political relevance after they had been wiped out in the 1997 general election.
Even with a poor campaign in the first devolved Welsh election in 1999 the Tories still won 9 of the 60 seats in the new Assembly elected under semi-proportional representation. And the Welsh Conservatives’ story since then has been one of steady and consistent progress. They have improved their position at every subsequent devolved election, becoming the official opposition in 2011 after winning 14 seats and overtaking Plaid Cymru for the first time.
The Tories’ presence in the Welsh Assembly helped provide the launch-pad for growing success in general elections too. They won back three seats in 2005, raised the total to eight in 2010, and in 2015 unexpectedly made three further gains. That total of 11 MPs was the Conservatives’ best performance in Wales since 1983; the Welsh Tories punched above their weight in contributing to David Cameron’s unexpected majority.
It is no surprise that against this backdrop the Welsh Tories entered 2016 with confidence in their prospects for this year’s Welsh Assembly election. Wales’ long-dominant party, Labour, seemed doubly vulnerable. The UK-level party was floundering under Jeremy Corbyn, while Carwyn Jones’ Labour Welsh Government has received consistently mediocre public ratings for its performance on key policy issues, such as the NHS.
The Tories were not expecting to win the Welsh Assembly election, but further significant advances seemed very possible. Indeed, at the Welsh Conservative conference in March, their Assembly leader Andrew RT Davies even talked up the party’s chances in Bridgend – Carwyn Jones’ own seat, and one that the Tories haven’t won in any election since 1983.
But now it all seems to be going wrong. The Tories’ poll ratings in Wales have slumped: down by five points for Westminster voting intention in two months in the regular Welsh Political Barometer polls by YouGov. Of more immediate concern, the Conservatives have also dropped four points on both votes for Assembly. The latest poll, published earlier this week, put Tories in third place – behind Plaid Cymru on the constituency vote for the first time in almost three years with YouGov, and only two percentage points ahead of UKIP.
Having begun the campaign with apparently realistic hopes of a strong second place, and winning several further seats from Labour, there now seems at least the possibility of the Welsh Tories actually finishing fourth, behind not only Plaid Cymru but also UKIP. Any such result would be a great boost for the Welsh Nationalists, and hand a stunning propaganda coup to Nigel Farage’s party. Hitherto they have only ever beaten the Conservatives in a European Parliament election; if they could finish ahead of them in Wales too, that would be a landmark achievement, and further cement their position in British politics.
The problems of the Welsh Tories are mainly those of the party across the UK: with public splits over the EU referendum; an unpopular budget; the Iain Duncan Smith resignation; and the Panama papers, it has been a tough few weeks for the party. But there is also a specifically Welsh dimension. The problems at Tata Steel have dominated the Welsh news in recent weeks, and this week’s Welsh poll showed that few people have been impressed with what the UK government has done to help. The efforts of the Welsh Government were hardly given a glowing public endorsement either, but evaluations of this were at least less scathing.
Against this difficult national background, the Welsh Conservatives’ electoral prospects may depend ever more on their ground campaign. They have good organisation, and plenty of resources (relative to the other parties) to put into direct mail. But boots on the ground appears a problem. Some of their own members – even some of their Welsh MPs – have been publicly spending time in recent weeks campaigning for Brexit, rather than putting in a shift for their colleagues in the Assembly. Splits over the EU referendum may thus harm the effectiveness of their local campaigning – which was such a strength of the Tories’ performance in last year’s general election.
The political winds have changed direction in recent weeks. And the Welsh Conservative party could be one of the main casualties.