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Welsh Conservatives

Running the live blog tracking the elections in Scotland and Wales was something of an emotional rollercoaster. Early on, the Conservatives in both nations lost key targets. But in the end, they each ended up either delivering or matching their best-ever performances.

But whilst Douglas Ross’s achievement is near-universally acclaimed, and has cemented his authority in the Scottish party, there is disquiet amongst his Welsh colleagues about their own performance.

On the face of it, this is surprising. After all, at 16 MSs, the Welsh Conservatives have returned their largest-ever Senedd caucus. They have basically managed to win five of the seven seats that UKIP won in 2016, effectively consolidating the ‘unionist right’ in the Welsh Parliament whilst seeing off what looked like a strong challenge from Abolish the Welsh Assembly, who despite strong polling failed to return any MSs at all. Plaid Cymru are now definitively at the Senedd, as at Westminster, Wales’ third party.

The leadership is understandably keen to present this as a triumph. Likewise, some of the MPs are chipper, saying that suggestions the party under-performed “a total press fabrication”. They point out that the vote share is up and delivered a record number of Senedd seats, both of which are true.

So why are others in the party so unhappy? Why are the media headlines about ‘soul-searching’, not success?

In short, because it failed to do what it was trying to do, which was mobilise the mass of support that saw Boris Johnson deliver an exceptional haul of Welsh constituencies at the 2019 general election to change the political map of the Province.

Whilst they did unseat the Liberal Democrats in Brecon & Radnorshire, of the party’s Labour-held targets only Vale of Clwyd fell. Meanwhile Clwyd South, Delyn, Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham stayed red, despite having Conservative MPs at Westminster. It was the same for second-order targets Cardiff North and Gower, which had Tory MPs in the recent past.

Those defending the Conservative performance point out that in many cases the Labour MS was returned with fewer votes than the Conservative MP received in 2019, so these should be winnable seats.

But whilst this is true as far as it goes, it only highlights the other big strategic failing of the campaign. It was supposed to mobilise 75 per cent of the voters who back the Tories at the general election. In the end, one source said that “by my calculations we only achieved 52 per cent”. Once again, and for all the grand claims by the devocrats that it should be considered the pre-eminent voice of Wales, turnout for a devolved election failed to reach even half of registered voters, coming in at just 46.5 per cent.

This failure probably hurt Abolish too – it’s no point polling seven per cent if those voters sit it out on election day. And defenders of the campaign point out that it affects all parties.

But there is no denying that it hurts the Tories more. Last Thursday, Labour took 443,047 votes to the Conservatives’ 289,802; in 2019 it was 632,035 to 557,234. Tory MPs tell me their canvassers know voters who turn out not just for Westminster but for local elections, yet sit out the Senedd.

How to mobilise them is probably the biggest single challenge facing any Welsh Conservative leader. But it comes with risks. In order to woo devosceptic voters (not to mention see off Abolish) the Tories ran a strongly unionist campaign on the promise of “no more powers!” – which delivered their best-ever result. They have had to abandon their old ambition to win power via  some sort of deal with Plaid. For the first time, even some of the MS group are devosceptic, in addition to several MPs and much of the activist base.

The long-term consequences of this have been disguised by Labour’s strong showing this time. But it heralds a future Senedd more polarised around the constitutional question. So long as Labour is led by a nationalist such as Drakeford, their only path to holding on to power if their position slips will be a deal with the capital-N Nationalists. Meanwhile there won’t be any shortcuts to power for the Conservatives, who will need to either win switchers directly from Labour or double-down on whatever strategy it takes to get their Cardiff-sceptic coalition to actually vote.

Holding more than a quarter of the seats in the Welsh Parliament is a good result. But polling suggested that the Tories and Abolish between them might at one point have got more than a third. Governing requires winning at least close to half. This election doesn’t create an obvious path to those sort of numbers, which may be why there is such grassroots disquiet at what is, objectively speaking, the Conservatives’ best-ever result at Cardiff Bay.