There are ructions in Cardiff Bay this morning, as Andrew RT Davies has resigned as leader of the Welsh Conservatives after a meeting of the Tory Welsh Assembly group. Davies was less high-profile than his Scottish counterpart, but had held the role for seven years and as of last month’s ConservativeHome survey still enjoyed an approval rating on our panel of +34.2 points.
The full details of this morning’s meeting are yet to come out – and his resignation statement carefully does not specify a reason for his departure, only “deep regret” at the fact of it – but we know the general background. The response of Davies, a Leave supporter, to what he called the “hyerbole” of Airbus’s warning annoyed various of his colleagues. Guto Bebb, MP for Aberconwy and a Defence Minister, called the comments “unworthy and inflammatory”, complained that he had not been consulted before Davies spoke, and disputed the description of him as Welsh Conservative leader rather than leader of the Conservative group on the Assembly. It seems Bebb and others have effectively forced Davies from office as a result of those remarks, though other factors may have played a supporting role.
There will now be an election for Davies’ replacement, of course, but a debate has immediately begun about what form that will take. The outgoing leader’s statement pointedly notes that he won the role after “securing the mandate of the party in a ballot of the membership.” In part that reads as a rebuke to Bebb’s argument about his authority, but it is also included to make the case that the new contest should take place on the same democratic basis. He continues: “It is my firm belief that any Leader of the Assembly Group should secure the same mandate in a full ballot of the grassroots, and I hope that my successor will emerge in that manner.”
That is obviously the right approach; as ConservativeHome has long argued, for reasons of both practice and principle the Conservative Party should be run on the basis of democratic accountability. Where reforms and changes take place, they should be in the direction of more democracy, not less – it would be wrong to use in 2018 a less democratic system for choosing the Welsh leader than was previously used in 2011. Indeed, there is a good argument, given Bebb’s criticisms of the responsibilities of the role, to consider formalising the job as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives (something Davies proposed last year) in order to avoid any confusion.
The question of internal Party democracy is particularly sensitive in Wales, where the top-down imposition of candidates and the trampling of Party members’ democratic selection rights in the 2017 General Election was even worse than that seen in England. Last year’s mismanaged process led to Associations being over-ruled and even put on special measures, activists resigning roles of responsibility in protest, and widespread disillusionment and disengagement as a result. Any attempt to deny Welsh Conservative members the right to elect the most senior role in their arm of the Party would re-open those wounds, and do yet more harm.
Of course, there’s a political reason why some in the Assembly group might not be quite so keen as Davies is on having his successor elected by the membership. If some Tory AMs were uncomfortable with his support for leaving the EU, then the prospect of the Party members – also majority Leave supporters – selecting who takes over might not fill them with joy, or indeed aid their own prospects in the race.