After several hours of delay, and despite the whole country knowing what was coming, the prime minister appeared from Downing Street last night to announce a national lockdown for England. Boris Johnson told us (with no irony) that no “responsible” prime minister could ignore the rising COVID-19 figures. A bumbling speech, poorly formatted slides, and that strange Churchillian thump of the lectern were all there to crown yet another incompetent address to the nation.
“Thank goodness he doesn’t speak for Wales” was probably the phrase of choice for many watching. Johnson’s new restrictions do, however, have serious implications for us. Perhaps the most significant for public health is the fact that Wales will leave its lockdown on November 9th, several weeks before England. The Welsh government faces another struggle to work with Downing Street on issues like the Wales-England border, in addition to co-ordinating a more UK-wide approach around Christmas. What could go wrong?
Let’s also spare a thought for some of the people most affected by the prime minister’s decision. Paul, Andrew RT and the rest of the Welsh Conservatives are going through a particularly difficult period. After weeks of lambasting the first minister for introducing a Welsh circuit breaker, bordering on near hysteria at times, their own English master has done the same. A dose of Dom is headed towards them at a rapid pace; and the sad reality is that they will always see that as a good thing.
The Shadow Health Minister sticks by his view that the two-week lockdown implemented across Wales was “disproportionate and unnecessary” for some areas. And, after all, Andrew RT reminded us that he was an elected Welsh (rather than English) politician. You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t realised: as Patrick McGuinness argued this week, the Welsh Conservatives have acted as the anti-devolution and anti-Welsh brigade for several months, to the amazement of commentators and growing numbers of the Welsh public.
They have revelled in Mark Drakeford’s miscalculation over the non-essential items policy, even though the circuit breaker is popular with the people of Wales, and have constantly sided with Downing Street when it comes to policies relating to the pandemic. Aside from this, they have called for a “devolution revolution” to shake-up Cardiff Bay – promising to defund areas like international relations where Welsh Labour have apparently pretended to have more powers than they do. So, if Paul Davies was to become first minister, the Senedd would not be “treading on Westminster’s turf”.
Over the summer I argued for The Spectator that the Welsh Conservatives needed to have their own distinct identity to be more effective as a political force in Wales. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has readily acknowledged that forces in Whitehall rather than in Edinburgh or Cardiff have made the Conservative party ineffective in their mission to save the Union. A Welsh Conservative party as constructed previously by figures such as Nick Bourne and David Melding – at its core, a movement driven by Welsh issues – might be more electorally viable in the current climate and, alongside Welsh Labour, a positive force for unionism.
Alas, it appears that the current crop of Welsh Conservatives have no interest to do so. It was probably an impossible task in the first instance. Even during the summer the party were obsessed with political point-scoring, taking credit for the relaxation of the five mile travel rule, while Simon Hart, apparently still the Welsh Secretary of State, used Twitter to goad the nation that Wales was too poor to raise enough money to support itself. It exposed how even the most senior Welsh Conservatives were happy to talk down to a Welsh public that is increasingly frustrated by Downing Street. A foolish move.
And then came the Internal Market Bill. It was the most blatant example of how Welsh Conservatives were prepared to follow Westminster rather than support the legitimacy of Welsh devolution. Their only response was to say that no powers were being taken away from Wales – even though the Bill gave Westminster the power to override the Welsh government on spending decisions. So much for Brexit giving us more control. David Melding saw it a good enough reason to resign from the shadow cabinet. The only sensible voice from the Welsh Conservatives is, however, to stand down in May and is now consigned to social media to post his musings as #TheLastOfTheUnionists.
This is the sad reality of how far the party has declined from its respectable ideological grounding. No longer do they represent sensible conservative voices across Wales. Instead, it’s more apparent that they hate the very idea of our nation taking independent decisions within the UK. Their irrational political attacks on social media have fortunately not cut through. Instead of turning against Welsh Labour, the Welsh public are behind Mark Drakeford like never before and are turning increasingly towards the idea of independence as a real alternative to the current constitutional settlement. And yet the Tories would not think twice about denying that the political ground is moving across Wales.
In principle, for the main opposition party to be irrational, aggressive and nonsensical is not good for Wales. We of course need a strong opposition, but not one which talks down its government and its people. They used to be a thoughtful and constructive party in the Senedd; but under its current leadership, it is a mere extension of its chaotic and ideological parent in Downing Street. The biggest contribution of Welsh Conservatives today is fuelling further calls for independence; that, in short, is a sad indictment of their role in modern Welsh politics.