Last August, I mooted that the Welsh Conservatives risked missing a big strategic opportunity if they stuck to the safety-first strategy their two leadership candidates appeared to have adopted.
By ‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary status quo and trying to align themselves as possible coalition partners with Plaid Cymru – not impossible, under a different Nationalist leader – the Tories might squander the opportunity to pick up pro-Brexit, pro-UK voters from UKIP.
Fast forward to 2019, and the evidence is coming in that this is exactly what has come to pass. New Welsh polling from Sky, courtesy of Professor Roger Awan-Scully, finds that the disintegration of the ‘People’s Army’ has failed to provide any meaningful boost to the Conservatives.
Consider this: in the 2016 Assembly elections the Tories took 11 seats (down three), whilst UKIP picked up seven. That’s a net gain of four for what we might broadly term the ‘unionist right’ and put it on 18 seats, or nearly a third of the Assembly.
Now? UKIP are all but gone. After two and a half years of resignations, coups, and general chaos, this latest polling puts them at just a single seat – and that, I’m told, could well be a mere statistical fluke. The Conservatives? They’re projected to win 13 seats, just two more than 2016 and fewer than they had in 2011.
So where have these ex-UKIP voters gone? A substantial portion appear to have defected to the single-issue integrationist party ‘Abolish the Assembly’, who are projected to enter said institution for the first time.
But ATA only get two seats, and with the Liberal Democrats still languishing on one (and that one a constituency seat which is Tory at Westminster!) the rest have presumably either gone back to Labour or stopped voting in devolved elections, as right-wing unionist voters are wont.
Worst of all, the new polling indicates that once again the Conservatives are behind Plaid in the devolved vote, despite being streets ahead in the Westminster voting intention. If this holds true at election time – and it has to date – that indicates hundreds of thousands of Tory voters staying at home for devolved contests, and would consign the party to junior partnership with the Nationalists in the event of any coalition.
Labour, Plaid, the Conservatives, and UKIP all enter 2019 with new political leaders, one of whom is First Minister. With no major electoral contests scheduled (emphasis on scheduled) for this year, they ought to have a bit of breathing space in which to take stock and implement their strategies.
For the Conservatives, the key remains whether or not they can break out of their strategic rut at Assembly level – perhaps by studying how Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories both animated their base and broadened their coalition with an emphasis on the Union.
Not only do their Welsh counterparts need to find a way to activate their Westminster voters and get out ahead of Plaid, but they also need to be wary that ATA doesn’t establish itself as a viable contender for their unionist core vote. If they have to start fighting on that front, any Plaid-facing campaign seems doomed.