The Electoral State of the Parties, 2: the Conservatives
Let’s start with the good news, shall we? This year’s general election saw the Conservatives in Wales achieve some historic success. Back in June the Tories increased their share of the vote in Wales by 6.3 percentage points over their already rather good performance in 2015. The Welsh Conservative vote share, at 33.6%, equalled their performance in the 1935 election, and has not been bettered by them since December 1910. There have been other positives too. 2017 saw the Welsh Conservatives attain their highest general election opinion polls ratings on record – ever. And earlier in the year, the party in the National Assembly regained from Plaid Cymru their status as the second largest group – albeit through the defections of individual AMs, not any decision by the voters.
In short, there would seem to be lots of reasons for Welsh Tories to have departed for their summer breaks with a spring in their collective step and a joyous song in all their hearts. Yet if there has been a celebratory mood among Welsh Conservatives in recent months then I’m afraid I missed it. Rather, an air of disappointment must have accompanied many party stalwarts as they set off for the beaches, along with their buckets and spades.
Why disappointment? The main reason, very obviously, is the result of June’s general election. Yes, the Conservative vote was up, and to a level not seen in Wales for a very long time. But against all prior expectations Labour’s vote share went up more – and three incumbent Welsh Conservative MPs lost their seats. Far from building on the advances of 2015, and even challenging Labour’s dominance in Welsh politics, the Tories actually went backwards. Two years ago, the Welsh Conservatives had contributed to David Cameron’s surprise majority victory; now, they were an equal part of the shock as Theresa May squandered that position in her vain search for a decisive Brexit mandate.
This outcome was so disappointing for the Tories because it was so unexpected. The party had entered the snap election with justifiably high expectations. Indeed, the election was only occurring because much of the available evidence suggested that the Conservatives would probably win big. For months after her ascension to the Prime Ministership, Theresa May enjoyed a honeymoon period with the voters. The very public internal problems of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership meant that the Tories were under little pressure either in the House of Commons or in the opinion polls. There was no need for the Prime Minister to call a general election: with Labour at Westminster a dysfunctional shambles, the nominally narrow Conservative parliamentary majority faced no serious threat. One prominent Welsh Conservative suggested to me in the spring that his party’s best long-term strategy would be simply to let Labour ‘stew in their Corbynite juices’ for as long as possible.
But Brexit provided the perfect pretext for short-circuiting the Fixed Term Parliament Act and dissolving parliament early. And for some weeks during April and early May, the Prime Minister’s election gamble looked like a very low-risk punt. Not only did the Tories have huge leads in most of the Britain-wide opinion polls; even in Wales, they were well ahead in the first two polls of the campaign. The Welsh party seemed on the brink of an historic breakthrough: scoring their first general election victory in Wales since the 50s – the 1850s. Moreover, these poll leads appeared to have some solid foundations. Brexit was rated the most important issue by Welsh voters, and the Conservatives were the party most trusted by the voters to deliver on Brexit. In addition – and just about unprecedented for an English Conservative – Theresa May was the most popular politician in Wales. It was difficult to see how the election could provide anything other than a very comfortable, if not massive, Tory victory overall. And it seemed very likely there would be Conservative gains in Wales – possibly even to the extent of denying Labour a majority of Welsh seats for the first time since 1931.
We now know that it didn’t turn out like that. Partly this was about what Labour did: Jeremy Corbyn turning out to be an effective campaigner, the strong Welsh Labour campaign led by Carwyn Jones, and Labour’s effective uses of both social media and on-the-ground campaigning. But the Conservatives were, at the very least, active co-authors of their own fate. The party almost certainly over-estimated public tolerance for endless repetitions of the ‘strong and stable leadership’ soundbite: by halfway in the ITV Welsh leaders’ debate, Andrew RT Davies was being openly jeered by the audience as he repeated this line once again. And when the Prime Minister began to struggle visibly on the campaign trail, ‘strong and stable leadership’ began to seem not merely tiresome but increasingly ridiculous.
Yet maybe not everything that went wrong in Wales can be blamed on the campaign in London. What about the Welsh campaign? There, in a sense, we immediately identify a problem. There wasn’t much of a Welsh Conservative campaign. At the start of the election this largely seemed to make sense: the Tories sought to focus the greatest amount of attention possible on UK-wide issues and leaders, because there they enjoyed a clear advantage over Labour. But the Tories did little to respond to their main opponent’s ‘Welsh Labour’ emphasis. And when their UK-level advantage crumbled as well, the Welsh Conservatives were left fighting an uphill struggle. Still, it has to be said that when the Welsh party did have stage, they did little to help themselves. Whatever their other strengths may be, neither the party’s Assembly leader nor the Secretary of State are impressive public performers. There was even a public spat before the second televised Welsh leaders’ debate as to who would represent the party, which led to Darren Millar being called on to present Tory case at short notice. The AM for Clwyd West actually did rather well, but viewers might reasonably have been puzzled as to the reasons for his presence.
Some have drawn the conclusion from the election that the Tories need a clearer Welsh leadership, and to project a stronger Welsh identity in their campaigning. Such a formula has worked well for the Scottish Tories in the last couple of years. But there is no obvious leadership figure in the National Assembly group; probably the Welsh Tories’ most impressive performer is Stephen Crabb, still serving time on the Westminster backbenches. Meanwhile, there remains no obvious route into government for the party at the devolved level in Wales. And at Westminster, a weakened Prime Minister presides over a Brexit process that is likely to get ever more difficult.
A year that once looked so promising for the Conservatives now offers them increasingly difficult prospects.