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Welsh Tory leader Andrew RT Davies goes against Boris Johnson on HS2 and St David’s Day bank holiday

The leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd Andrew RT Davies has spoken out against his party’s stance on HS2 funding for Wales and a St David’s Day bank holiday. Mr Davies spoke to WalesOnline for an interview to mark the start of the Welsh Conservative Party conference.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is among the senior Tories expected in Newtown, Powys, for the two-day party gathering starting on Friday, May 20. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is to give a speech at the party’s gala dinner in the evening.

In his interview,South Wales Central MS Mr Davies contradicted his own party’s position on two policies that have become deeply controversial in Wales – the decision to deny Wales a share of the UK’s biggest-ever rail infrastructure spending spree as a consequence of HS2 and the refusal to consider a St David’s Day bank holiday for Wales.

Scotland and Northern Ireland are both benefiting benefit from additional money allocated as a consequence of the funding going into the high-speed rail scheme in England but because David Cameron’s government decided it should be classed as an England and Wales’ scheme, Wales is missing out on a consequential that would be worth an estimated £5bn. The UK Government says Wales will benefit because “the HS2 interchange at Crewe will bring many parts of north Wales within two and a quarter hours of London, faster than the current west coast mainline services to Holyhead”. You can read the background here.

The party’s Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies said his group now believe that it should be reclassified. However rather than the money go to the Welsh Government, who would “squander and fritter it”, it should go direct to Network Rail, according to Mr Davies.

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“We’ve seen the comments this week about the Metro system going over budget and so I just think they’re incapable of delivering major infrastructure projects. And I think that that debate that discussion within the party will be robust but I hope that we come out the right side,” he said.

“Robust” conversations have already happened with the policy team at Downing Street and the secretary of state, Mr Davies said. Asked if he could ever win that battle he said: “I don’t go into battle to lose – I go into battle to win. If you look at the battles that I’ve had over the first tenure of my leadership there’s not many I lose – I do tend to win a few”.

He would not however be drawn on whether Wales should get the full £5bn but said he would fight for “significant” investment. “I just think that the Welsh Government are incapable of delivering,” he added.

His group also disagrees with the UK Government over whether Wales should get a bank holiday for St David’s Day. Mr Davies said it would be a “logical progression” for Wales to get an additional bank holiday and “ultimately that should be very easy”.

As far as elections go one where you lose 44% of your councillors and the only council you had overall control of is a pretty bad night at the office. That’s exactly what happened to the Welsh Conservatives earlier this month. While there was much talk beforehand about the party having its highest number of candidates in Wales any hope it had of building on the 2019 General Election gains in Labour heartlands were obliterated as the votes were counted on May 6.

It wasn’t the election day the party wanted. Nor was the preparation ideal with constant doorstep conversations about the negative headlines from Westminster. Ahead of the Welsh group’s conference in Newtown this weekend we asked Mr Davies about where the party goes from here. Does he plan to be the man leading them and does Boris Johnson still have his support?

Looking back at the election campaign Mr Davies said: “People were talking about partygate because the fines were issued in the second week of the campaign. I think it was just the sense that obviously there have been restrictions, there are currently still some minor restrictions still in place, and people have been under those restrictions. And people felt aggrieved that obviously there’d been a rule-breaking narrative developing in the centre of Whitehall.”

He says his support remains for Prime Minister Boris Johnson so long as he meets three tests. “One: he answers fully and clearly the questions and allegations that are put to him by the Sue Gray inquiry. Two: he commands a majority in the House of Commons of his MPs. And three: he has to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and identify that he’s the man to deliver a majority Conservative government.”

But if the PM didn’t meet any of those three tests would you be honest and bold enough to come out and say he needs to go, I ask. “I hope that one thing that people can respect me for is being honest and open. Look at the David Cameron and Andrew RT Davies dynamics in 2016. The easy part of me there would have said: ‘No, do you know what I’m backing what the Prime Minister’s doing and I’m going to say we should stay within the European Union.’ That would have been the easy way. But I was the only major Welsh politician who took the reverse decision and actually said: ‘No I believe that we need to leave the European Union and I will be actively campaigning for Brexit’. So when it comes to push, Andrew RT Davies will stand toe-to-toe with the most significant political figures in this country – not Wales but in the United Kingdom – and tell them to their face when they’re wrong or when it’s time to go.

“I believe that Boris Johnson, if he can answer those three tests, should be the man to lead us into the 2024 [election] – if that’s the year that the election comes, general election, but the important part of that for us here in Wales is that we use this time to build the Welsh Conservative brand and we have to put the red jersey have Wales on ourselves, men or women, and go out there and play for Wales and back Wales on the big decisions of the day because when we get to 2026 it will be 25 years Labour would have been in power here in Wales. Are we honestly going to say that another five years Wales will be well served by by another Labour government?”

Discussing those doorstep debates he said: “Some people were sympathetic. Some people wanted to use the election as a way of sending a message and some people were outright hostile. Instead of us being able to expand those arguments about what we will positively do for the cost of living we were having to defend [the] partygate narrative.

“There was a set of distinct narratives that were being played out through the campaign. Partygate was one, cost of living was another, and the difficulty for us as a party about getting our message out was that partygate was coming up first for our spokespeople when they were doing media interviews so they were directing their comments to that and little about the news of what we were doing on the cost of living,.

“Let’s not forget the Chancellor has put £22bn on the table to deal with the cost of living pressures. Is there more we can do? Of course there’s more we can do and we will be doing more as the Chancellor indicated. When you look at the rise in the living wage from £8.70 to £9.50, when you look at the lifting of the threshold on the National Insurance up to £12,700, that’s a massive lift. The tapering on Universal Credit so people keep more of their money before their benefits get cut back. The call that we made on fuel duty to cut fuel duty to put money directly into people’s pockets was listened to by the Chancellor and delivered.”

So do you think you’re the party to deal with the cost of living crisis? “I believe so because you have to have a strong economy and we’ve seen the job numbers come out only yesterday.” But on the day we meet inflation has risen to 9%.

He counters: “There are two very unique things are happening. The war in the Ukraine has pushed up the price of energy and the price of commodities and also coming out of the hibernation that we all went into because of the Covid crisis. Two very unique sets of circumstances that have driven inflation to the levels is at at the moment – not through the mismanagement of the economy that governments traditionally have had accusations thrown at them – and the government is responding to both. The Ukrainian president himself and virtually any leading figure in Ukraine will say of the leading role of Britain has played in supporting that country defend itself. And then when you look at coming out of Covid the UK Government in particular was keen to get the economy open far sooner than other parts of the United Kingdom, such as the Welsh Government here in Cardiff, so that we could get that economic activity back up and running, get people back into jobs, and start earning across so that we can keep a lid on inflation which is difficult at the moment slightly.”



Andrew RT Davies voting in the 2021 election
Andrew RT Davies voting in the 2021 election

So what does the party do next? “I think we need to reflect on the campaign as a whole in the first instance and being able as a political party to put a record number of candidates in the fields shows the health and wellbeing of the Welsh Conservative brand and party is in good spirits because council level is the grassroots level of people’s first foot on the rung to get into politics. So putting 669 candidates in the field to fight across Wales was a big, big development.”

He admits they lost “some very good councillors” but one worry that has been expressed is how you keep the interest of those new campaigners, and candidates, after a rough election. He says since the election loss he has spoken to many of the newer candidates and they are “up for the challenge”. The expected gap in elections until 2024 is a chance for the party to “dust itself off, build momentum”.

“Let’s not forget we had two really strong solid performances in 2019 and 2021 where the Conservative brand went forward. And if you go back to 2017 a really good result at the local government level – record-breaking results. Regrettably it didn’t carry through to 2022. We shouldn’t be disheartened. We should learn the lessons, obviously, and we should build a very strong Conservative brand that is clearly identifiable here.”

There has always been a level of confusion about who holds the power of the Conservative brand because, under its constitution, the party has no leader in Wales. “I don’t think it matters because we have a very distinct way of dealing with policy within the party which I know sounds quite anoraky but when it comes to responsibility in devolved areas – health, education, the economy, environment, transport – that is in the gift of the assembly group here to develop. We’ve just appointed our new policy director James Evans so we have that policy position distinct within the Welsh setup. When it comes to Westminster that is within the gift of our Westminster colleagues to deal with their policy area.”

His group have recently started vocally expressing their opposition to some key UK Government positions. For example they believe St David’s Day should be a bank holiday, something the UK Government disagrees with and after a decision a few months ago, he’s now come out to say that he believes Wales should benefit from HS2 funding. The project is classed as one which benefits England and Wales which means Wales gets no Barnett consequential – which would total £5bn – from it despite there not being a single metre of the track in Wales. You can read the background to all that here.

He says there is more they can do to distinguish that brand. “Political parties of all colours continually to have to evaluate where they sit in the political spectrum but we’re a very distinct Welsh Conservative brand that speaks and fights on Welsh Conservative issues.”

In 2018 the 54-year-old he was ousted as leader and replaced by Paul Davies who then had to resign after allegations he had broken Covid rules by drinking in the Senedd – a claim he was later cleared of. The pair are good friends, Mr Davies says, and he has his support.

“The working relationship Paul and myself had is strong but also on a personal friendship basis we are very good friends as well. And at no time Paul has ever expressed to me a desire to maybe consider coming back to the leadership in the future. I’m here for the long haul. At the end of the day you don’t do politics on a part-time basis. I love every moment of it. I enjoy working with a brilliantly talented gifted group of MSs.”

In 2021 he took an extended period off having been diagnosed with Covid. He admitted in a statement it had “knocked him for six”. “I’m starting to recover but I will admit it’s knocked me for six and has had an impact on my mental wellbeing.” There was, despite obvious political differences, support in the Senedd for his honesty in his statement. You can read that here.

“There was warm words expressed and handwritten letters sent in to myself as well and I was very grateful for that, I was, but I don’t talk about my health. At the end of the day I’m in good health now. Here for the fight. I’m up for the challenge.”

But he accepts that for a public figure like him, and one with a farming background, to talk publicly about his mental health was a big move. So why do it so openly?

“I think it’s important that you explain why you’re going to be moving away from frontline politics for a given period. Not just leave a void or vortex open up. And privately and also in my political work I offer a great deal of support to other individuals who may be facing challenges in their own lives as well and I think that’s important. But I don’t think the public want to particularly hear a politician bleating on about themselves.”

The reaction has surprised him. “I was in two meetings last Friday. Both individuals who came to those meetings took me by the arm and said: ‘Thank you for what you did last autumn, that was deeply moving’ because it is a big issue, mental health within our society and within our communities. We need to support more people. It’s not necessarily the ones you traditionally think might have those issues but ultimately people know there’s support out there for them and I would love to be an advocate for that support”.

He plans, so long as he maintains the support of his group, to be the leader at the next election in 2026. But if they say a day is a long time in politics then four years is a lifetime. What the Senedd he will be seeking re-election to will look like is an unknown – as is who his party’s leader will be.

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