When Daniel Kawczynski, the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury, appeared to suggest on Twitter thinking again about having a Welsh Assembly, the response from Conservative colleagues was swift.
Both Byron Davies, the Chair of the Welsh Conservatives, and Craig Williams, the Member of Parliament for neighbouring (but Welsh) Montgomeryshire, wrote public and critical letters. Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary, has reportedly backed them up.
On the surface, this looks like an inconsequential skirmish. But whilst Kawczynski’s concerns about the impact of the now-Parliament on the “cohesion of Britain” don’t play well with the leadership, they have resonated with much of the membership.
According to one leading member of a Welsh constituency association, the devolution question is “a tinder box ready to go off”. They point to January’s ‘Welsh Political Barometer’ poll, which found that more than half of Tory voters would choose to scrap the Assembly if a referendum were held.
This grassroots view is not shared further up, at least over the short term. A senior figure in the Welsh Party told me that this is a perennial point of dispute within the party but that they expect the devosceptics to toe the line in the end. Nor are the devosceptic MPs, concentrated largely although not exclusively amongst the newly-minted North Walian members, spoiling for a fight.
Nonetheless David TC Davies, now a Welsh minister and something of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper on devolution, and the whips are reportedly keeping tabs on a few MPs including James Davies, Jamie Wallis, and David Jones, the former Welsh Secretary.
Yet circumstances are pushing the issue up the agenda. The 2019 general election saw a substantial tranche of new Conservative MPs returned for constituencies in North Wales, an area much of which takes a dim view of rule from Cardiff. Then the Covid-19 crisis has thrust the conduct of the Welsh Government into the spotlight, with MPs fielding furious messages from voters over misplaced shielding letters, delayed priority food deliveries, a botched volunteering scheme, delayed tests, and more.
Nor is this a problem that will necessarily go away even if both sides were minded to let it. The Welsh Conservatives are already being hurt by their voters’ antipathy to Cardiff Bay: low turnout in devolved elections – which Christopher Harries pointed out yesterday has yet to top even 50 per cent – disproportionately affects the Tory vote. Hundreds of thousands of voters who back the Conservatives at Westminster stay at home.
As I have written previously, this leaves the Party facing a tricky choice: to lean in to the status quo and the devophile minority of Welsh voters who pay attention to the Assembly, but at the expense of leaving much of their possible coalition at home.
But what if they don’t stay at home? Smaller parties are trying to exploit the Tories’ silence on the question to carve themselves a niche amongst unionist voters. In Wales these include the remnants of UKIP, scrambling for relevance following our exit from the EU and the rise and fall of the Brexit Party – just yesterday Neil Hamilton published an open letter chastising Williams for chastising Kawczynki.
The more serious threat, however, may come from Abolish the Assembly, which has chosen whether on grounds of ideology or euphony not to change its name in line with that institution’s new branding. Earlier this month they secured their first defection of a sitting Tory councillor, and they reportedly have their eyes on several more. In December they also benefited from the defection of Lee Canning, until that point Deputy Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives, who has become their Head of Political Operations. He apparently intends to fight a ‘key target seat’ for the party in 2021. Just as importantly, he brings to the table a big Conservative contact book the party previously lacked.
Will any of this be enough to destabilise the Party’s campaign for next year’s devolved elections? It doesn’t look like it at the moment. The Conservatives continue to poll extremely well, even allowing for the still-visible structural gap between their Westminster and Cardiff Bay voting intention, and may finally be in a position to secure the ‘right-unionist’ seats won by UKIP in 2016.
The minor unionist parties, meanwhile, are still scrapping to establish themselves and have not yet found a charismatic figurehead, although even the relatively sanguine senior Tories expect Abolish to win at least one or two seats in the regional lists.
But there are no grounds for complacency. The devosceptics themselves are taking their inspiration from the battle to leave the EU, a multi-decade campaign which saw a relatively small vanguard of dedicated activists gradually exert pressure on a resistant major party and drag the debate their way. They also anticipate that their pitch to disaffected unionist voters could be super-charged if the Conservatives end up entering into a pact with Plaid in order to displace Labour next year.
That’s the state of play today. But the Welsh elections are a year away – or maybe even further. In these volatile times, that’s plenty of time for the game to change.
And the leadership clearly senses something is afoot: Paul Davies struck a devosceptic note in a speech ‘relaunching’ his leadership in March, and even Williams acknowledged that the time for debating the questions Kawczynski raised “will come later”. The membership may hold him to that.