As we noted in our election night live blog, the Welsh Conservatives had a very good general election. Their best in thirty years, in fact.
I counted myself amongst the optimists when I predicted a Tory wash in Wales: taking Brecon and Radnorshire from the Liberal Democrats and losing Cardiff North to Labour.
Instead, our majority in Cardiff North leapt from less than two hundred to more than two thousand. We also made two gains: Vale of Clwyd and Gower, the latter of which has returned a Labour MP since 1905.
How did the Welsh Tories pull off such an advance – taking us back to levels of representation not seen since the 1980s – against such an unpromising political backdrop as five years of austerity? And where do they go from here?
Victory in 2015
They themselves attribute this success to a few critical factors. First, putting paid to the Labour charge that they were effectively an “English party in Wales”. Across all their most important seats, the party selected candidates with very strong local connections.
As we noted in our Battleground Profile the Gower candidate, Byron Davies, had contested the seat in 2010 and has represented the area in the Assembly since 2011. Andrew Atkinson, who cut Labour’s majority in Wrexham in half to just 1,831, has built up his local window cleaning business since he was 17.
Not only does this allow the Tories to neuter the “foreigners” narrative that has so effectively othered them in Scotland (and was deployed by an increasingly hysterical Welsh Labour party during the campaign), it also afforded them the sort of local intelligence and instincts that form the bedrock of a strong ground game.
Second on the list was actually making sure that the UK government delivered for Wales. Despite an unpromising background of austerity vital projects such as rail electrification, neglected throughout Labour’s time in office, have finally seen the light of day.
This allowed Stephen Crabb, the Welsh Secretary, to hold his own during the local leaders’ debates, and the party on the doorstep to sell the idea of a government that was taking Wales seriously. (He extolled the Coalition’s Welsh record in a March speech to the Institute of Welsh Politics).
One Labour supporter, former special advisor David Taylor, writes: “The First Minister can stand up in Assembly every week and blame the UK Government for all of Wales’s woes. It’s an easy line but it doesn’t work anymore.” That knife, in Tory hands, now cuts the other way.
This is the third reason. Labour’s stranglehold on the reins of power in the Welsh Assembly since 1997 has allowed the Conservatives to run, at least in part, an opposition-style campaign, forcing Welsh Labour onto the defensive over their lamentable record on health and education.
This led to what many in English politics will find remarkable: Tories leading on the NHS because it played well against Labour with the voters. James Davies, the newly-minted Conservative MP for Vale of Clwyd, is a GP.
It also allowed the Assembly- and Westminster-focused portions of the party to come together and harmonise around an effective strategy, side-stepping the power struggles and differences of strategy which can hamstring divided parties (except for one or two media slips such as that over the manifesto).
Despite the good result (one source refused to reveal how many 40:40 seats there were in Wales but would say “we did very well”), local Tories are confident they can go farther still, with seats such as Wrexham, Delyn, and Alyn and Deeside in their sights.
Capturing those three would put the Conservatives back on 14 Welsh constituencies – the same as our 1983 high-water mark. It would represent a stronger showing in wider Wales even than then, too, because our 1983 total included three Cardiff constituencies.
Changing demographics have carried the city away from the Tories since then but, as one put it, an increased majority in Cardiff North shows you can make too much such augers.
Despite all the good news, however, there are several potential bumps in the road between the Welsh Conservatives and greater, or longer lasting, success.
In Westminster terms, there are grounds for arguing that this election might have proved a perfect storm. Not only did the party have Jones’ record to run against, but immediate post-mortems from Welsh Labour sources suggest that their campaign was shoddily managed.
In particular, resources appear to have been poured into a hard-to-win battle with Plaid Cymru in Arfon, where the nationalists ended up more than doubling their overall majority.
Meanwhile, despite the Tories telegraphing their haymaker by launching their campaign in Gower and dispatching a flying column of Team2015 volunteers, Labour never realised the seat was under threat until the eve of polling. As Taylor and other Labour sources pointed out, it wouldn’t have taken much to prevent Gower’s eventual Tory majority of 27 votes, or James Davies’ of 237 in Vale of Clwyd.
He also fears that the First Minister’s fixation on viewing Welsh politics through a Scottish prism – and fighting a nationalistic, traditionalist Labour campaign as a consequence – is leading the party up a blind alley in a country that is “not becoming more Welsh or more left wing”.
Local Conservatives acknowledge this, arguing that London commentators often don’t appreciate how divergent the Welsh and Scottish political situations have grown since the advent of devolution. As a result, their strategies and experience are less directly applicable to Ruth Davidson’s troops than some of us (myself included) might have previously assumed.
All this means that there is no guarantee that Labour will be so ill-led in 2019 or 2020, and the Tories will have to up their game if they are to continue making gains against a regrouped Labour machine.
The second problem lies in the Welsh Assembly. A strong general election performance augers well for the party in next year’s elections, especially as the incumbent administration’s record will be even more front and centre than it was this time.
Yet the Conservatives are starting from a base of 14 seats in a 60 seat chamber, against Labour’s 30, and the current Assembly offers them no likely Coalition partners. Leanne Wood’s Plaid has locked itself into a cultural and ideological straightjacket that prohibits such cooperation, whilst the Liberal Democrats may perhaps hesitate before joining a coalition with the Tories.
Navigating the party into a more centrist position, from where it may find the partners it needs to secure a Conservative First Minister, will require both determination and the deft handling of a diverse (and sometimes divided) Assembly group which contains its share of traditional right-wingers.
Finally, there is the potential impact of UKIP on the Welsh political landscape. It took third place in the Welsh popular vote last week, almost topped the poll in last year’s European elections, and looks set to enter the Assembly in 2016.
Local sources admit that the party’s future role is a bit of an unknown, and it does take votes from both Labour and the Tories. However it has done particularly well in rock-solid Labour areas such as the Valleys, breaking into a base of neglected voters who have spurned Plaid’s advances.
The road to 2020
If success is far from assured, however, the Welsh Conservatives do appear to have a clear strategy for keeping up the momentum over the next five years.
The first is to make maximum use of the benefits of incumbency. Cardiff North, they argue, demonstrates that once the Tories have broken through they can dig in and make substantial advances even in inauspicious circumstances.
Moreover in 2015 Cardiff North’s former MP, Jonathan Evans, was standing down, so the party secured its new majority without even a familiar candidate.
The second is to reinvigorate the party machine. The distances involved in Welsh campaigning make a strategy of centrally-organised flying columns à la Team2015 impractical, which makes strong local associations all the more important.
They also provide vital sources for local intelligence for when the party can afford to bring concentrated resources to bear. That CCHQ sent a ‘Road Trip’ of activists to Gower, a nominally unpromising seat, may well have tipped the balance, and Labour’s woeful fightback in the constituency reinforces how vital on-the-ground knowledge can be when those running campaigns get lost in the air war.
It may be a tricky one, but the Welsh Tories really do have a plausible path to 1983 levels of Conservative representation. It falls to the rest of the party to catch up.