In the second of my pieces assessing the current electoral fortunes of the main political parties, I turn to the Conservatives. In my equivalent piece last year, I concluded that “A year that once looked so promising for the Conservatives now offers them increasingly difficult prospects.” A year on, and not much has changed.
Some things have changed, of course. The party has a new leader in the Welsh Assembly. Andrew RT Davies’ robust style had never really cut through with the Welsh electorate, where the evidence from the Welsh Political Barometer polls was that he was consistently one of the less visible and less popular political leaders. After the Tories lost significant ground in the 2016 Assembly election, perhaps ‘RT’ was always living on borrowed time. The fact that he was on the opposite – though winning – side of the Brexit referendum from most of his Assembly colleagues probably also did not help. Nor did his less-than-perfect relationship with the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns. The exact circumstances that prompted RT’s departure remain murky, but clearly by June 2018 many of his Assembly colleagues felt that it was time for him to go.
There was then a leadership race between Paul Davies and Suzy Davies. (The historic suggestions that the Tories are ‘an English party in Wales’ now seem even more unfair: how much more Welsh can you get than a contest between Davies and Davies to succeed Davies?!). The outcome was a clear victory for Paul, which has inevitably meant a marked change in style and tone. He is less likely to flirt with populism than his predecessor, and his natural approach is quieter and more obviously consensual: comparisons with Nick Bourne are far more obvious than with RT. But he is no soft touch, and is broadly respected across the Assembly.
Paul Davies was elected by Conservative members in Wales, yet he is not their elected leader. His role is only that of leader in the Assembly: he does not have the same scope to lead the party in Wales that Ruth Davidson possesses in Scotland. Who leads the Tories in Wales remains confused: some of the problems that has caused the party in recent times were discussed post-resignation by RT himself here (in a piece admirably lacking in self-pity). The lack of clear and convincing Welsh leadership quite possibly harmed the party electorally in the 2017 general election. It was probably not a major factor compared to the failures of the Maybot, and the extraordinary way the campaign trail seemed to transform Jeremy Corbyn from stumbling incompetent into inspirational leader. But the lack of single, and effective, Welsh leadership figure did not help the Welsh Tories get their message home effectively. And that issue of unclear leadership in Wales remains intact.
But a far bigger potential problem also remains intact. Brexit. More than two years after the June 2016 referendum, we still have little idea of the exact terms under which the UK will leave the European Union. As the party in government at Westminster, the Conservatives are responsible for delivering Brexit; their own support base has become substantially more pro-Brexit than it was even two years ago. In every sense, the Tories are now the party of Brexit. If they are able to manage this process successfully, then this may help them win enhance their support among the many ‘left behind’ voters and communities that tended strongly to support Leave in 2016.
However, the smart money right now does not seem to be on either a smooth or successful Brexit. In many ways that should not be surprising. Leaving the EU is the most complex and difficult thing that the UK has tried to do at least since de-colonisation, and probably since it fought World War II. The UK embarked on this task with virtually no prior preparation. That difficulties should arise was almost inevitable. Those difficulties have arisen on three distinct, though inter-related, dimensions. The first is the UK-EU negotiations, which are not going well. While there has been substantial progress on many technical issues, on key points there remains an impasse. The second dimension, of politics at Westminster, is also very difficult for the government: close observers are in doubt that there is currently a majority in the Commons for any conceivable UK-EU deal. The third dimension, which has received somewhat less attention in the UK media, is the inter-national and inter-governmental politics within the UK. This has also been marked by conflict, and by accusations of bad faith by the devolved governments against London. A Brexit which Scotland so clearly opposed in June 2016 could yet help to push apart the union.
All successful political parties are coalitions. The Conservatives have for much of their history been one of the most electorally successful political parties in the democratic world. Their ranks have included social conservatives, free-marketeers, and ‘Queen and country’ British nationalists. But during their many successful periods the Conservatives have also attracted large amounts of support from the politically moderate, principally by persuading such people that the Tories were the political party most likely to help them improve their lives. When events like Black Wednesday in 1992 have damaged this perception, the Conservatives have suffered electorally. A chaotic Brexit, or one that in other ways significantly damages the UK’s economic prospects, could destroy the Conservative reputation for economic competence completely and permanently. That the Welsh Conservatives have had little influence on the Brexit process would not insulate them from these consequences.