Anyone listening to the news headlines en route to the opening day of the Welsh Conservative conference knew that whatever Boris Johnson said on the stage wasn’t going to be what made the headlines.
As I wound my way through the picturesque roads of Powys, the news was full of exactly what the Prime Minister didn’t want to talk about. What was leading the news was, obviously, partygate, and the conclusion of the Met Police inquiry and looking ahead to the Sue Gray report.
His deputy Dominic Raab had a car-crash interview on Radio 4 speaking about the policy to send migrants to Rwanda. There was the PM’s friend and the government’s domestic violence advisor hinting strongly that the PM had blocked street harassment being made a crime.
And when he arrived in Wales, you knew the questions from journalists would only be about the previous day’s Met Police announcement and at a party level it is “what happened” in the local elections. The results were bruising at best, bleak at worst. When the votes were counted on May 6, the number of Conservative councillors was down 44% compared to five years previously.
To their credit, few tried to shy away from the result in May. One of the newly-elected councillors told conference in its opening minutes it had been a “challenging election”. Welsh group leader Andrew RT Davies said “voters gave us a wake up call”. The Prime Minister’s only mention was in his conference notes when he said he “shared the disappointment” while the Welsh Secretary did acknowledge the campaign had been “a big challenge, a struggle for many” and “we are alive to the reasons that lay behind these results and are aware voters gave us a sharp rebuke”. But he said they “want to vote for us” but we need to “remind them why”.
Natasha Ashgar, the regional MS for South East Wales, told me the response to the results was one of disappointment and sadness. They struggled to get local issues through to people through the noise of national headlines of Boris Johnson, cost of living and fuel prices. And those headlines aren’t shifting anytime soon. She admitted it is difficult to lose and admitted that messaging needs to be improved to show people what it actually is that the party has delivered for them. In opposition in the Senedd that’s very little, but they can promote UK schemes and council successes.
And that is the million pound question. How do they rebuild?
It depends who you ask. One Westminster MP told me it’s about motivating the troops at a local level, through groups like Women2Win to target specific groups and give them support. What was missing this election was a consistency across council areas and what is needed is mentoring, efficiency and being prepared – more often than not, the date of elections are known and shouldn’t be a surprise, I was told. A different Welsh member however called for a distinct message and brand for Wales but aren’t those different approaches contradictory? You’re getting activists to back the Tories, but then telling them in Wales it is different to what they’re hearing Boris Johnson and co spout from Whitehall.
Simon Hart, in a strong conference speech told delegates: “We are really alive to the reasons for these results. They gave us a sharp review”. But who is carrying out that review, is there one in Wales and one in London?
You also can’t shy away from who he was talking to. Actual grassroots party members were few and far between in Newtown, as were attendees generally. The speakers were definitely speaking to loyalists. The atmosphere was far from electric and there were plenty of empty seats, but the most interesting thing was that the Welsh Conservative group sticking its flag in the ground and saying it is going for a different tact. They have picked two distinct policies to hang their hat on to show they are different to the UK Conservatives. This conference, Andrew RT Davies spoke about his desire for Wales to get a Bank Holiday for St David’s Day – that isn’t new – and its share of funding through HS2 – which is.
The question is will their demands be taken seriously. The fact the Prime Minister told us he had no idea about one of them – despite it being the one that wasn’t new – maybe answers that question. It is one thing to decide your tactic is being different to London it is another for it to make any progress. The Treasury has already said an extra bank holiday would be too costly, and in the midst of an economic crisis they are not about to assign Wales an extra £5bn by reclassifying HS2.
The Welsh group didn’t seem disheartened at what appeared to be the Prime Minister shooting both down, they see it as a thing to chip away at, not score a big win straight away, and they maintain them going their own way isn’t about being divisive, they can still sit round a table with colleagues and disagree constructively. These two areas they’re going big on now are ones that matter to the “needs of the people of Wales” and that’s why they were picked, not for political posturing.
What is interesting is that this switch to Welsh-only policies has come now. They have long spoken about St David’s Day, where the Welsh group is now at odds with its UK leadership and calling for a bank holiday for Wales, but Andrew RT Davies told me that the switch to calling for consequential HS2 funding for Wales came two or three months ago. It has, I’m told, been driven by a change in the Senedd group’s dynamic. In 2016 the Conservative group had no new blood, the same wasn’t true in 2021 when there were eight totally new members and two returning after a spell away. They include new, young members who are making their presence felt and that new blood is driving change, a change they see as long overdue. Ms Asghar told me there is a “need for change, it’s just how we go about it”.
A different source said the way forward is being brave enough to disagree with the UK party and they need to become “more serious”. They should, I was told, look to the Scottish Conservatives, to see how they have made themselves a distinct brand, less “chest beating” and more robust. They have had more than two decades as an opposition party in the Senedd and that isn’t good enough.
And yet, in his conference notes, Welsh secretary Simon Hart wrote: “The Welsh Conservative brand has never been clearer and the relationship between the party, the Wales Office and the Conservative group in the Senedd has never been stronger”. Can both be true?
There also doesn’t seem to be a universal acceptance about how disastrous May’s result was. In black and white, losing 86 councillors and the one authority you had overall control of is bad. But party diehards are taking comfort that in places like Pembrokeshire, Montgomeryshire, Wrexham and Conwy they didn’t go backwards. One long-term member told me they knew it wasn’t going to be easy to maintain the successes of 2017. There was bad reputation management about Monmouthshire for example, but they are no danger of losing that seat at a Westminster or Senedd level. They will tell you they didn’t lose votes, they just didn’t get people out, with some coaxing, and as political types do, when they look back at the history books they’ve been comparing if it’s 1991 or 1994, and the feeling is 1991 rather than a 1994 style wipeout.
Partygate isn’t going away, whatever Boris Johnson hopes. The publication of the Sue Gray report won’t draw a line under it because the people who are angry are angry because they missed births, marriages, deaths, and they are things you don’t forget. There is an acceptance in the ranks of that. They are still feeling the electoral impact of Conservative members who were Remainers and that group are still “giving us a kicking” as one put it to me. That anger will take a couple of election cycles to dissipate which means the next General Election, which most people feel will not be before 2024, could mean a much-reduced majority. They would take maintaining a majority of something like 10, so long as it’s still a majority, and say that given the current majority of 75 means very little in practice due to rebels and factions, a smaller group could be easier to manage.
The reality is that the Conservative party has soul searching to do. In local associations, in Wales, in the UK. The answers won’t have come from one weekend in Powys, but they need to come from somewhere, and soon.