In my assessment of the Welsh Tories last year, I suggested that “[t]he Conservatives may well be on the defensive in the coming general election, but their prospects of it being a largely successful defence look distinctly stronger than they did twelve months ago.” Well, it’s obvious that, for the second successive year, the Conservatives have out-performed my expectations of them. They did much more than simply holding their ground in the 2015 general election, and after that success they must now enter the 2016 National Assembly campaign in very good spirits.
All this would have been difficult to imagine some twenty years ago, when the Tories were witnessing John Redwood building on Margaret Thatcher’s work in making the Conservative brand utterly toxic to much of Wales; then losing nearly all their councillors; and finally being wiped off the parliamentary map in 1997. The National Assembly that they had long fought against offered them a foothold back; and the Welsh Conservative story since then has been one of steady and almost continuous progress.
In my own defence, I still think that it was reasonable of me to expect that the Conservatives’ electoral battle in 2015 would be primarily a fight to hold onto the gains of 2010. After all, every single opinion poll on Westminster voting intention in Wales during the 2010-15 parliament showed a net swing from the Tories to Labour; such was also the pattern when actual votes were cast in real elections in 2011, 2012 and 2014. My own private forecast for the Conservatives in 2015 was for them to remain steady on eight seats: I thought they were favourites to hold onto all their other seats, but considered that they had roughly the same chances of losing Cardiff North as they did of gaining Brecon & Radnor.
Boy, was I wrong! The Conservatives held all their gains from 2010 comfortably, increasing their margin of victory in every single seat. They also ended up winning Brecon & Radnor pretty easily from a popular Liberal Democrat incumbent. And they pulled off two of the biggest shocks of the night across the whole UK by capturing – very narrowly – both the Vale of Clwyd and Gower from Labour. That left the Tories with their largest number of Welsh MPs, eleven, since the high water mark of Thatcherism in the 1980s.
This Conservative performance was in some ways all the more impressive because it was not based on a great tide of popular support. The Welsh Conservatives’ increase in vote share since 2010 was small, only slightly larger than that achieved by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. And while the 27.2% of the vote won by the Tories in Wales in 2015 looks pretty healthy when compared to the 19.6% they won in 1997, it was still a full 13.7 percentage points behind the Conservative vote share in England; it was also some way behind the vote shares achieved by the Welsh Tories, while winning fewer seats, in 1987 and 1992. The Welsh Conservatives punched above their weight in contributing to David Cameron’s surprise parliamentary majority. But they did so not so much through winning a substantial new support base as through a highly effective, well targeted campaign that got them the votes where they most needed them.
What, then, of the Tories’ prospects for 2016? Can they continue their electoral advance? There are some potential difficulties. Their 2016 campaign is likely to be rather less well-resourced than their 2015 effort – although that will probably be true for all the parties except Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives might also find some of their more anglicised support-base less motivated to vote in a Welsh Assembly election – and they will not have a UK-wide referendum to help energise those supporters as they did in 2011. Perhaps the biggest potential problem for the party, though, is that they will now face the full backlash against any public discontent with actions taken by the London government: they no longer have the Liberal Democrats to act, as they did throughout the 2010-15 parliament, as their political human shield.
Nonetheless, all the evidence thus far from the Welsh Political Barometer polling is that the Conservatives continue to retain the stubborn support of something more than 20% of Welsh voters for the Assembly election. As long as that remains the case, the party will continue to be on course to have a significant presence in the next National Assembly. And if the Conservatives can once again out-perform their poll rating, it is quite possible that they might even make further seat gains. Constituencies that the Tories won comfortably in 2015, such as Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, and Brecon & Radnor, cannot be assumed to be safe for their current incumbents in the Assembly.
The Welsh Tories’ biggest problem, though, does not appear to be gaining a reasonable number of seats in the Welsh Assembly. Their problem, rather, is what they are able to do with that presence in the chamber. Thus far the Tories have increased their number of seats in every Assembly, but this has not – bar the brief period of ‘Rainbow Coalition’ negotiations in 2007 – brought them any closer to being in government at the devolved level. Unless the party is able to make an electoral advance in 2016 that is much greater than anything currently suggested by the polling evidence, the Tories are not going to be anywhere close to forming even a minority government on their own. And none of the other parties currently represented in the Assembly are likely to want to form a coalition, or any other type of formal partnership, that would put the Conservatives into government. It is very understandable, in these circumstances, that some of the Conservative group in the National Assembly should have decided to look to Westminster instead. That group retains some very talented people, but their chances of holding ministerial office at the devolved level currently seem very slim. There is at present no obvious way out of near-permanent opposition party status for the Conservatives in the National Assembly.