Ifan Morgan Jones
Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies will give a speech at the party’s conference later today which is extremely interesting because of what it says about their hopes at next year’s Senedd elections.
Paul Davies will promise four specific moves in order to, in his words, “end the assembly gravy train” if they win power:
- Halve the number of Welsh ministers to seven
- Freeze civil servant recruitment
- Not increase the budget of the body which runs the assembly
- Stop any increase in the number of Assembly Members from 60 to 90
This is a very interesting change of tack by Paul Davies because it is essentially admitting that they see zero hope of any agreement with Plaid Cymru after next year’s election.
As the polls currently stand after next May’s election Labour will be on 21 seats, the Conservative on 20, Plaid Cymru on 18 and the Lib Dems on just the one.
This is probably a Conservative high-water mark but leaves the party short of 10 seats to form a majority government.
So Paul Davies’ only real chance of becoming FM would be to do some kind of deal with Plaid Cymru. The Welsh Conservatives have said in the past that they’d be willing to do a deal with PC.
The choice of Paul Davies, a Remain-supporting Welsh-speakers from the west of Wales, as leader, also seemed like a move designed to open up that possibility.
However, Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price has been quick to quash any suggestion that there’s a possibility of any such deal: “I said clearly in the leadership campaign, I don’t want and would never ask for people’s support for a coalition with the Conservatives. How could I with my life history, you know?”
The parties have also drifted apart since the days of the mooted 2007 coalition under Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nick Bourne. Plaid Cymru have gone further left and pro-EU, the Tories further right and pro-Brexit. The Tories are also in power at Westminster, an institution it is now Plaid’s policy to gain independence from.
Paul Davies’ speech today is a turning point as for the first time it seems to recognise the impossibility of a deal and discard it.
Why? Well, as part of any deal Plaid Cymru would have wanted an expansion of the Senedd’s size and power – that is their raison d’etre. By making the promise to put the brakes on more powers and trim the institution back the central announcement of the conference, Paul Davies has kiboshed that.
He is also promising specifically to cut the number of ministers to seven. But with fewer ministers, what would they promise their coalition partners? Again, it’s not a policy mooted by a party expecting to be in coalition government in just over 12 months.
So it seems there has now been a pivot in Conservative thinking from being in government to simply trying to be the largest party in the Senedd.
They are currently neck and neck with Labour in the polls so one way of doing that is to absorb the entire Brexit Party, UKIP and Abolish the Assembly vote – around 6% of the vote according to the St. David’s Day BBC/ICM poll.
Proportional representation means that winning some of this vote probably wouldn’t lead to a big increase in seats for the Conservative party, as any seats won in the constituencies would likely be lost on the regional list.
So they would still be a fair way short of the 30 seats needed for a majority, and without Labour or Plaid Cymru willing to prop them up couldn’t form a government.
But what it would allow them to do is to brand any government that does form – probably a Labour/Plaid coalition or looser arrangement – a sad ‘losers’ coalition’.
And winning the election could then be used as a stepping stone to an outright majority at the next set of elections in 2026.
An alternative theory or hot take for you: Paul Davies is very pro-devolution and therefore in order to burst the Abolish the Assembly bubble is promising cuts to the institution that sound significant but are in fact mostly cosmetic.
For instance, cutting the number of ministers will do almost nothing to reduce to cost of the institution – it will save perhaps a few thousand pounds. It would just mean that fewer ministers have larger departments to run.
And an expansion in the number of AMs realistically didn’t look to be one the cards in the near future anyway as politicians fret that it would be grist to the populist mill.
You could, therefore, argue that Paul Davies loves devolution so much that he’s willing to sacrifice any hope of government in order to preserve the Senedd, by becoming a safe repository for anti-devolution votes!
If so it’s a largely thankless task as he is likely to now be clobbered from all sides – by supporters and enemies of devolution who see him as giving in to populism and the Senedd’s enemies who will think he is not going far enough in curbing the institution’s growth.