For the second in this short series of pieces looking at the current standing and electoral prospects of the major political parties in Wales, I turn to the Conservatives.
To say that the Welsh Conservatives experienced mixed fortunes during 2019 would be a good contender for under-statement of the decade. Many might have forgotten that, in the dying days of the Theresa May government, the party won only 6.5 (!) percent of the vote in Wales at the hastily-arranged European election in late May. The Welsh Tories avoided being pushed into sixth place by the Greens by a margin of only 1,927 votes. Yet just over six months later in the general election, with the Conservatives now under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the Welsh Tories made a huge advance. Their six seat gains meant that Wales more than punched its weight in delivering the Prime Minister his substantial parliamentary majority. The result also meant that the Welsh Conservatives equalled their post-war high in returning fourteen MPs; the only other time since 1945 that so many Conservative MPs were elected in Wales was the 1983 Thatcherite landslide. Moreover, if you looked at share of the vote, the story got even better for the party. Their 36.1 percent of the vote was the best the party had scored at any Wales-wide election since the European election of 1979; and the highest they had recorded at any general election since 1900! This was unquestionably an historic advance.
Another way of looking at the 2019 result for the Welsh Conservatives was to compare it with that in England. The Welsh Tories have long under-performed compared to their English counterparts; as I have mentioned previously on this blog and elsewhere, the last time that the Conservatives scored a higher share of the vote in a general election in Wales than in England was in 1859! This did not change in 2019: once again there was a higher Tory vote share in England than in Wales. But the gap in Conservative vote share between the two nations, at 11.1 percent, was smaller than at any general election since the nineteenth century. In short, this was not just a case of a ‘rising tide lifting all boats’ – indeed it did not, with the Conservative vote share actually falling in Scotland. There was a specifically Welsh element to the Conservatives’ advance.
Since the general election, the Welsh Conservatives’ popularity has shifted in response to major external events. The January and April Welsh Political Barometer polls both placed the Conservatives in the lead for Westminster and the Senedd, as at least some Welsh voters seemed willing to reward the party for delivering the UK’s exit from the European Union, and then ‘rallied to the flag’ in the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis. Since then, however, the tide has turned. Just as the Welsh Tories were lifted by public support and sympathy for the Johnson government in the first months of the year, so they have suffered as the public mood has turned more negative. Public confidence in the handling of the Covid crisis by the UK government has fallen, with voters in Wales increasingly appearing to prefer the approach of the Welsh Government. The Conservatives also now face a much more formidable Leader of the Opposition at Westminster, Sir Keir Starmer having taken over from Jeremy Corbyn. The June Barometer poll saw a steep fall in Conservative support, with Labour resuming their lead for both Westminster and the Senedd. Public evaluations of Prime Minister Johnson had also fallen significantly; on the other hand, ratings for Labour’s Westminster and Senedd leaders had improved a great deal.
In the immediate future, Welsh Conservative fortunes will continue to be largely shaped by UK-level political fortunes. The dominant issue is likely to remain Covid-19 – a multi-dimensional crisis, concerning not only a major public health emergency but also much broader economic and social consequences. But Brexit has not gone away, even after the UK’s formal departure from the EU; and a messy British departure from the single market in January could have huge economic and social consequences – from which major political consequences would surely also follow. In short, the Welsh Tories’ prospects next May are largely hostage to events over which they will have little or no control.
In some respects this could be a good thing for the Conservatives, because the Welsh party is not obviously in great shape. The party continues to lack the clear public leadership in Wales that, for several years under Ruth Davidson, was integral to the Conservative revival in Scotland. Mind you, even if there was a clear role of Welsh Conservative leader, it is not obvious that there are stand-out candidates for the role. As it is, Senedd leader Paul Davies, who will lead the campaign for next May’s election, has little public visibility or appeal. But the problems with the Welsh party go beyond merely PR – that much, at least, appeared evident from the Ross England/Alun Cairns saga last year.
Paul Davies is respected across party lines in the Senedd as an intelligent and competent man, but in recent months has tacked towards a more populist approach. Some of the positions that the Welsh Tories have adopted, such as supporting the M4 upgrade rejected by the Welsh Government and rejecting the case for an enlarged Senedd membership, may well have some public traction. Others could prove to be less appealing. In particular, the party’s position on Covid regulations could well prove to be a classic case of ‘unpopular populism’, based on a substantial misreading of the public mood.
Beneath these particular policy stances, there is a broader strategic dilemma facing the Welsh Conservatives in the lead up to next May’s election. The party will wishes to pitch their appeal in a way that will maximise their electoral success but also give them a chance of escaping the permanent opposition role in the Senedd to which they have always thus far been confined. Yet those two objectives may be, to some extent, in tension. It is clear that many in the party are aware of the electoral danger potentially posed on their right flank. UKIP and the Brexit Party have both experienced considerable electoral success in Wales at certain points during recent years. Although such forces are currently in some disarray, were there a clear populist, Euro- and devo-sceptic option to be presented to the voters next May, it would have the potential to gain significant votes and even seats. Guarding the Tories’ electoral flank against such incursions by developing their own populist-tinged appeal therefore has substantial vote-winning logic.
But such an approach will also have two further consequences. The first is to reduce the chances that there will be another party of the right with whom the Conservatives could look to work (in formal coalition or some other type of arrangement) in the Senedd after the election. The more successfully the Tories squeeze the vote of UKIP/Brexit/Abolish the Assembly, the less likely that those parties are to be present in the Senedd as a potential partner.
The second consequences is to reduce even further the possibility that the Conservatives could cut any form of post-election deal with any other party. I was always among the more sceptical about the notion of a post-election deal in 2021 between the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru. With every spat over devolved powers involving the Conservative government in London, and with each tack towards populism by the Welsh Tories, the chances of any such post-election deal being possible seem to diminish a little further. Political scientists talk sometimes about pursuing vote-winning and office-winning strategies. Often, of course, the former is the route to the latter. But in multi-party political systems that is not always the case – and such may be the case for the Welsh Conservatives in 2021.
There is thus something of a disjuncture between the Welsh Conservatives’ electoral prospects next year and the post-election outlook. Although major developments with Covid-19 or Brexit could substantially worsen their chances, at present it seems at least very possible that the Conservatives could enjoy their best ever Senedd election in 2021. There are several constituencies only narrowly held by Labour in 2016 which look very winnable, and their previous best score of 14 seats (in the 2011 Senedd election) could well be surpassed. Becoming a party of government, though, and finally escaping the trap of permanent opposition in the Senedd, looks much less likely.