Guto Bebb is a member of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Aberconwy.
What a rollercoaster ride! The past few weeks have been exciting and infuriating in equal measure. Whilst Scotlands ‘No’ vote is undoubtedly the result we all needed to ensure our continued fiscal stability, it has been achieved at a significant price. Promises made in relation to ‘devo-max’ or even ‘Home Rule for Scotland’ were initially heavy on rhetoric, but light on detail. However, the promises made in relation to the continuation of the funding formula which benefits Scotland to such an extent were clear and unambiguous. They were also signed by all three party leaders with no consultation with Parliament. This has left me, as a Welsh Conservative, feeling troubled.
In Wales, we have rebuilt the party to an extent that would not have been anticipated back in 1997, when the achievement of electing 14 Conservative Members from Welsh constituencies, which was the position during the landslide of 1983, appeared to be nothing more than a distant memory. Not until 2005 did we re-gain any Welsh Conservative representation at Westminster, but we can now claim eight MPs. We have had two successive Welsh Conservatives as Secretary of State for Wales. Furthermore, in 2011, we became the official opposition in the Welsh Assembly for the first time since the establishment of our devolved legislature back in 1999. This is real progress built on solid foundations and, whilst there is more to do, it compares well with Conservative representation in many English regions.
A key issue in Welsh politics is the issue of funding. There is a cross party acceptance that the Barnett formula ignores the needs of Wales and, whilst our per capita spend appears generous, it is remarkably poor when compared on a needs basis with many parts of the United Kingdom – not least Scotland. Back in 2010 Conservative Members of Parliament accepted that, whilst the funding formula for Wales needed to be looked at, the deficit was the main priority of the Coalition Government. Despite the attempts to highlight this funding shortfall by Labour politicians in Wales, they gained little or no traction with the electorate. Given their 13 years of inactivity on the issue how could they? Plaid Cymru attempted to raise it, too – but there remains something slightly odd, in my view, about a party that now favours full independence arguing that Wales has a funding deficit when compared to the rest of the UK on a needs-based analysis.
It is my belief that our commitment to fiscal consolidation was understood by the Welsh electorate who showed their acceptance of our argument on funding by giving us further gains in the 2011 Welsh Assembly Elections. However, the promises made recently have fundamentally changed the debate. We, Conservative activists and elected members in Wales, have long argued that a fair funding formula can be achieved by a Conservative Government which has dealt with the deficit and balanced the books. It is a mature position which is broadly accepted and understood by the Welsh electorate. Some of the promises made as the polls narrowed in the referendum campaign appear to challenge this, and point to a change in policy towards Scotland. As yet we do not know what this means for Wales. My colleagues and I will be making a strong case for Wales and scrutinising any proposals for further devolution to Scotland. After all, if we do not speak for Wales within the Union, then who will?