The last general election was very good for the Conservatives in Wales. It returned the highest number of Welsh Conservative MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide, and entrenched the Tories as the principality’s second party at Westminster.
As we explored afterwards, this was down to both a well-run Tory campaign and deep complacency on Labour’s part. The Conservatives also managed, in a neat inversion of the usual devolved dynamic, to run against Carwyn Jones’ record as First Minister.
Welsh election experts think there’s every chance that the Party can build on its current 11 seats. Professor Roger Scully, of the Welsh Governance Centre at the University of Cardiff, has highlighted six Labour seats which may be vulnerable. These are: Alyn and Deeside; Bridgend, Clwyd South, Delyn, Newport West, and Wrexham.
Five of those were listed as targets in our battleground profile for 2015, although Wrexham was not. If the Tories did take all six – a big ask, certainly, but none have impregnable majorities – it would lift the Conservative total to 17 seats and slash Labour’s to just 19. If the Liberal Democrats rode the anti-Brexit wave to regain Cardiff Central and Plaid finally captured Anglesey (Ynys Môn), that would put the two main parties on level pegging at 17 apiece.
That’s a tantalising prospect, especially for a leader as keen as Theresa May to prove her unionist, one-nation credentials. But two years has proven a very long time in politics – are the conditions right for the Party to make such advances?
Pessimists can point to two things. First, it’s unlikely that Stephen Crabb will revise his role as face of the Conservative campaign in Wales, a role in which he was very effective. Unlike the small-n nationalist Jones, he managed to run a campaign which reconciled a distinctive Welsh character with the reality of a national, British election campaign.
Crabb’s star has waned somewhat since then in the aftermath of his ill-fated shot at the leadership after the EU referendum, and it’s not yet clear who, if anybody, will step into the role he created in 2015.
Second, the Welsh Tories had a disappointing set of Welsh elections. Whilst Ruth Davidson was leading the Scottish Conservatives into second place, Andrew RT Davies’ troops slipped into third, losing a handful of seats and seeing Labour majorities extend in a string of 2011’s near-misses.
Does this represent an overall change of fortune for the Welsh Conservatives in the intervening year? Or that the general and devolved elections have very different dynamics? After all turnout between the two varies to such an extent, and so consistently, that they are basically fought for different electorates – and the sort of voter who tunes out devolution is likely better-disposed than average to the Tories.
Tory strategists will need to work out which, if they haven’t already, in order to avoid another disappointment. Yet as Professor Scully has pointed out in the News Statesman, there are tailwinds as well as headwinds for the Conservative campaign, by far the strongest of which is Brexit.
As he puts it, “almost the entire Welsh political establishment supported Remain”, despite the country’s eventual leave vote. This gulf between the Cardiff Bay bubble and the true balance of feeling in the country mirrors that of Scotland, and creates a role for Westminster as a corrective to the democratic deficits in the devolved assemblies – another fillip for the party of the Union.
With UKIP on the wane and Welsh Labour, the Lib Dems, and Plaid Cymru all committed to remain, there’s likely substantial scope for the Tories to make inroads into previously unreachable parts of the electorate as Brexit divides old coalitions.
Speaking of coalitions, another run against Jones’ administration in Cardiff Bay must surely be on the cards. Since losing his overall majority in last year’s election the First Minister has had to bring the Assembly’s sole Lib Dem into his Cabinet as Education Secretary, and get by with the sufferance of the nationalists.
UKIP’s Assembly group is as much a shambles as the national party, and this leaves the Tories in the position of being the only well-organised political force in Wales that isn’t implicated in the Welsh government’s poor record on vital public services such as health and education.
This far out, and without detailed polling on the ground, it’s impossible to guess at which, if any, of the seats listed above may turn blue – or whether any surprises might be lurking off the target seat radar. It may be worth keeping half and eye on Anglesey: it was Conservative from 1979 to 1987 (for the first time since 1722!), the Tories are only about 3,000 votes behind the incumbent, and the island voted Leave last June.
Much of it may come down to the campaign itself, as it did when Labour failed to realise that Gower was vulnerable and failed to reinforce it.
One thing is clear though: this is an election where the Conservatives must expect to advance. The best Conservative result in Wales since the universal franchise was the 14 returned in 1983. That total, and more, is within reach in June.
Update: Commentator ‘nendwr’ below suggested Dwyfor Meirionnydd as another potential wildcard. In 2015 it was a Plaid hold with the Tories in second place. On paper it isn’t promising: the Nationalists took 40.9 per cent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 22.7 and their majority is a healthy 5,261.
However… if you add UKIP’s vote to the Conservative vote then that majority is cut to a much more competitive 2000 or so, before you add in any of Labour’s 3,904. What might pull those votes in behind the Conservative? Well, according to seat-by-seat estimates by Chris Hanretty, 47 per cent of the voters in this seat backed Leave.
Furthermore, whilst in 2015 they only got 1,153 votes the Lib Dem share in 2010 was a much healthier 3,538. If they are on course for a limited recovery in Wales might they take a chunk out of the Plaid vote, as another pro-Remain, left-of-centre party?
There’s not enough there to put it on the likely list, but the ingredients seem to be present for one of those surprise results that liven up election night. Worth keeping an eye on.