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In 1997, the Conservatives were wiped out in both Scotland and Wales. Yet whereas the Scottish Conservatives have only ever managed to return a single MP at every subsequent general election – a far cry from the 11 elected in 1992 – the Welsh Conservatives have staged a comeback.

From three seats in 2005 they took eight in 2010, exceeding their 1992 share, and moreover look set to lose no more than a couple of these in 2015.

Offset the loss of seats like Cardiff North with the possible capture of Brecon and Radnorshire from the beleaguered Liberal Democrats and it is possible to speculate that a range of five to eight seats may represent a stable Conservative position in Wales for the immediate future.

Given the precarious – possibly Union-endangering – weakness of the Conservatives north of the border it is important that the party understands how this came about.

There are a number of potential contributing factors, the first of which is the party’s much faster acceptance of the realities of the post-devolutionary political world.

Whilst there is devo-scepticism within the party (how could it be otherwise when they campaigned against it) it has been much less prominent than in Scotland.

Indeed Nick Bourne, former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, at one stage apologised for the Conservative Party’s role in the ‘No’ campaign to the Welsh Assembly – despite the fact that this rearguard action by a rather shattered party came within a whisker of carrying the day.

Then there is the suggestion that much of Wales is simply much more “English” than the formerly Tory areas of Scotland. Welsh Conservative strongholds such as Monmouth and Pembrokeshire do not have the same cultural antipathy to voting Tory which has taken root in Edinburgh, Stirling and the North East of Scotland.

This also illustrates another Tory advantage – the lack of a credible centre-right opposition. Where the SNP managed to attract ‘Tartan Tory’ voters who are scared of Labour, Plaid has failed – if ever it attempted – to do the same.

Not only does it elect leaders of the hard left like Leanne Wood, but nationalism in Wales also has a much more cultural, and rather less civic, flavour than its Scottish equivalent.

Welsh nationalists are thus preoccupied by matters like the Welsh language which, whilst undoubtedly having an impact on the domestic political agenda, do not resonate with ‘Anglophone’ anti-Labour voters.

As a result, Plaid has failed to establish itself as the second party in the Assembly and the Conservatives have reaped the benefits in profile and perception of being the opposition.

One factor I have not yet mentioned, for it is only since the last round of elections that it has started coming to prominence: the fairly disastrous record of Welsh Labour’s uninterrupted government of the principality since 1998.

Despite resounding successes in the immediate aftermath of the Coalition – freed now from association with an unpopular UK Labour government – Labour’s polling in Scotland has been in steady decline.

In what the LSE describe as “perhaps the biggest polling movement in recent UK history that almost no-one has heard of”, Labour has lost a third of its Welsh support in the last two years. Where once it was on track to make seven gains in 2015 – vital in what will be a close race – the LSE now predict only two, both in Cardiff and only one from the Conservatives.

In my Wednesday Red, White and Blue column I have charted the ferocious Conservative assault, at the UK level, on Labour’s record on vital services like health and education. The Prime Minister even went so far as to declare Offa’s Dyke a “barrier between life and death” when attacking Wales’ tumbling NHS outcomes.

Comparing the outcomes secured by different parties in different parts of the UK is, undoubtedly, a legitimate use of devolution even if it discomfits local politicians. However, it does pose a strategic problem for the Welsh Conservatives.

On the one hand, Labour’s record in office is dire and it seems fair to suggest that the gradual exposure of the scale of its mismanagement of the principality at least correlates with the slow but remorseless decline in its share of the vote.

On the other the Tories will be doing their utmost to avoid the charge that has proved so damaging in Scotland: that they represent the Conservatives in Wales but do not represent Wales either to their party or in Parliament.

The administration of Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, has not been shy about conflating their policies with the Welsh nation and decrying an attack on the former as an insult to the latter.

One minister accused Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, of “invincible colonial attitudes” when he had the temerity to point out how Welsh children are paying the price of Cardiff’s neglect of education reform.

This may have had some effect: the LSE polls show a broadly unchanged level of Tory support even as Labour shed a third of their voters. Much of Jones’ working class support is actually turning to UKIP, who appear set to enter the Welsh Assembly in 2016.

This suggests that Andrew RT Davies still needs to persuade parts of Wales that the Conservatives really are on their side.

However, he has to do this without succumbing to the very strong temptation facing all devolved politicians: define yourself against Westminster, blame London for anything problematic, and constantly claim an expansion of your own power is the solution.

When Stephen Crabb, the current Welsh Secretary, took up his post this political tightrope was already apparent. It will only grow more treacherous as the general election draws near.

18 comments for: The challenge for the Conservatives in Wales

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