Earlier this week Wales Online profiled Paul Davies and Suzy Davies, the two candidates vying to replace Andrew RT Davies as leader of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly.
It’s a piece longer on personal detail than on political vision, and the candidates still have the campaign in which to set out their competing visions for the party.
On the strategic level, however, both seem to be converging on the same overall plan: tack to the devolved centre with the dual aim of winning seats off Labour in the Assembly and positioning the Tories as a viable coalition partner for Plaid Cymru in the event that Leanne Wood loses the leadership to a more small-c conservative challenger.
Such an approach seems sensible enough, but it is at root reactive and tactical. There are two factors which suggest an alternative strategy, one which doesn’t have a candidate and which would entail running against, rather than with, the political consensus in Cardiff Bay.
For example, the Tories might spy an opportunity to win over UKIP voters. In 2016 the People’s Army took seven seats in the Assembly. The Conservatives took 11 (a loss of three), and at 18 seats the combined total for the pro-UK political right was its highest since the Assembly was founded.
Almost immediately upon taking office the UKIP Assembly group collapsed into a shambles, and with the national party a shadow of its former self the Tories could find themselves in a strong position to consolidate the pro-Brexit vote, as they have in England and to an extent in Scotland (although the waters are muddied there by the ongoing fallout of 2014).
Referendums and constitutional questions have a tendency to shake up Britain’s traditional political coalitions. Many of UKIP’s 2016 voters have had a previous habit of loyalty to Labour disrupted by Brexit, and the Conservatives might find they can make bigger and longer-lasting gains from Labour here than in pursuing direct Labour-to-Tory switchers.
Yet the Party has just forced out a leader who stood out amongst the Welsh devocracy as one of its only high-profile Brexiteers, and the only mention given to the pre-eminent issue of the day by either candidate in their profiles is a call for it not to divide the party. This doesn’t suggest the Welsh Conservatives are likely to position themselves as the champion of Wales’ own 52 per cent. And after our formal departure from the EU, this opportunity to build that connection with these voters may fade.
Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.
Now some of that last figure may indeed be UKIP switchers, but even sticking with the 2015 figure that’s still almost 200,000 Tory voters staying at home a year later. That’s how the Conservatives can be indisputably Wales’ second party in the House of Commons, yet be stuck at about neck-and-neck with the Nationalists in the Senedd.
Devolved turnout has always been consistently and markedly lower than that at general elections (not that this is ever reflected in the endless demands for “more powers!”), but the Tories have the clearest strategic interest in mobilising the refuseniks. But doing so (to the extent that it can be done) would likely entail running a very different campaign to one calibrated for the usual Cardiff Bay electorate.
If they decline to pursue either of these courses, they risk giving UKIP the space to re-establish itself, both by winning back disillusioned pro-Brexit voters (as has occurred nationally in the aftermath of Chequers) and by monopolising a pitch to devo-sceptic voters.
We have seen the Scottish Conservatives face the same choice, between being the party prepared to support a minority SNP administration in 2007 to the Salmond-slaying opposition force of 2017. It is fundamentally a choice between trying to play the best possible game within a set of rules which are stacked against you, or seizing an opportunity to try to change the game.
Simply put, it is almost impossible to envision the Tories winning enough seats from Plaid and Labour, in the conditions of the current devolved electorate, to form a Conservative administration in Cardiff Bay. It may be that that tacking towards the Assembly’s centre of gravity in an effort to oust Labour in 2021 is the right tactical call, but it would be a great shame if this short-term goal were pursued at the expense of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring new groups of voters into the Conservative coalition.
Welsh members should press both candidates on how they intend to create the conditions for a proper Tory administration in Cardiff. As Tony Blair once put it, these kaleidoscope moments don’t last forever.