What would the five Tory leadership candidates mean for Wales, devolution and independence?
Ifan Morgan Jones
Last night’s Channel 4 debate was many people’s first proper look at the Tory leadership candidates, only two of which – former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Liz Truss – have held prominent Cabinet posts.
Indeed, what Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat think may well be a mystery even to some of their fellow Conservative MPs, let alone the membership and wider public.
So I had a look through the press clippings, Hansard and their own books, blogs and websites to see what – if anything – the leadership challengers had to say about Wales and, more broadly, devolution across the UK.
The answer is, perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly, ‘not that much’, but there are some clues to how they would each govern as PM.
Despite being the Tory leadership frontrunner, it’s rather difficult to know what Penny Mordaunt thinks of much of anything, let alone Wales and devolution.
She is something of a blank canvas onto which members can project their own politics, and playing it safe at yesterday’s leadership debate gave us very few clues about how she would lead the country.
She has however written a book Greater: Britain After the Storm which discusses what it means to be British at some length. However, the Britishness extolled here is quite vague (we like queuing and old things, apparently).
It’s very much in the mould of the feel-good 2012 Olympics vision of Britishness, as also displayed in her much-parodied campaign launch video.
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) July 10, 2022
She does have one or two things to say about Wales in her book, noting that the number of Welsh speakers has risen, that the Welsh are different from the English, and that “Britain should celebrate Wales more”.
She also appeared to defend devolution in the House of Commons when it was criticised by Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski over different Covid restrictions. She said of devolution that “I think it is a good thing” and that devolution added “divergence and diversity” to the UK.
She has however ruled out a Scottish independence referendum, telling the Daily Mail: “In this leadership contest, you will not only hear me talk of winning power across our United Kingdom. You will also hear me talk of winning power in Scotland, as difficult as it will be to achieve.”
Overall, therefore, she has said little about Wales or devolution, but what she has said suggests a more respectful attitude towards Wales and a less muscular form of British nationalism.
For that reason, she’s probably the PM candidate devolution should fear least but that the Welsh independence movement should fear the most.
The former Chancellor’s thoughts on the union are rather complicated. In 2020 he was forced to declare his support for the union after reportedly telling colleagues he thought it would make financial sense for England to “break away” from it.
“There are some comments about the Union falsely attributed to me in the FT today,” he said. “My parents moved to the United Kingdom, not England, because the Union represented an idea of opportunity. I am a strong believer in our union of four nations. Hope that clarifies that!”
As Chancellor however he has not paid Welsh or Scottish devolution much heed, introducing a Levelling Up fund which replaced EU funds that bypassed the devolved parliaments and gave the money straight to local authorities.
This move was described by Wales’ Economy Minister Vaughan Gathing as representing “a new era of aggressive centralisation”.
The Treasury has also generally annoyed the Welsh Government with its elusive attitude to Covid funds.
It’s hard to know however how much of this attitude stems from any ideological opposition by Rishi Sunak to devolution and how much was just a matter of getting things done within a generally ‘muscular unionist’ UK Government.
He has also ruled out another Scottish independence referendum, calling the UK the “most enduring and successful union the world has seen,” but with Labour also doing so that may well be interpreted as the default position for any serious candidate in the race.
It is perhaps quite telling that his campaign launch video, which told the story of his mother’s coming to the UK, could have laid the British nationalism on quite thick but did not do so.
With the revelation that he held a US Green Card until last year, and that his wife had ‘non-dom’ status, suggests that he would be a Tory leader with a global outlook rather than a ‘Little Englander’.
That might mean that he would be less inherently ‘muscular unionist’ than some of his colleagues, but it might also mean that he would be less sympathetic to Scottish and Welsh calls for more autonomy too.
In terms of his impact on the Welsh independence movement, the economic disparity between Wales and London has been a hot-button issue and having a Prime Minister from South East England who is three-quarters of the way to being a billionaire – albeit representing a northern constituency – might further drive that narrative.
Margaret Thatcher cosplayer Liz Truss (she copied the former PM’s wardrobe and voice for yesterday’s debate) has advertised herself as the Boris Johnson continuity candidate and is the Brexiteer’s choice, despite originally being a Remain voter and Lib Dem.
As Foreign Secretary, she has been in charge of the GREAT ‘global Britain’ campaign which has involved, in her own words, “featuring the Union flag and showcasing a modern, confident and successful Britain”.
Her campaign launch video was also very strong on Britishness. It was an interesting and no doubt deliberate choice to open with shots of Edinburgh and Cardiff Bay while intoning that “the United Kingdom is a great country”.
However, she has had very little of substance to say about devolution or Wales through her time in parliament. The most substantial comment I could find was an attack on Welsh PISA scores as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Childcare and Education in 2014.
She lived in Scotland as a child and attended school there She had also ruled out a second independence referendum for Scotland, saying that ‘one in a generation’ hadn’t been yet.
As the choice of Boris Johnson and his backers, it might be fair to expect more of the same, with some of the same people in charge, should Liz Truss become Prime Minister. Therefore, she is probably the candidate devolution has the most to fear from.
If you knew who Kemi Badenoch was two weeks ago then you are a more avid Westminster watcher than I.
The former equalities minister running for Tory leader on an “anti-woke” platform has emerged as one of the favourites among party members, and after yesterday’s debate may replace Liz Truss as the Brexiteer’s choice.
As a former member of the London Assembly she is, interestingly, the only challenger with any direct experience of devolution.
However, having only been at Westminster since 2015, I could find very little she had said about Wales or devolution beyond boilerplate government responses. In May she praised the UK Government’s Covid vaccination response, saying that they had “secured vaccines for all four nations”.
She has called for a slimmed-down government in the UK, which may not endear her to more left-wing governments in Wales and Scotland.
As the only leadership challenger never to have held a ministerial post, Tom Tugendhat has been relatively free to say what he likes from the back benches.
He has backed rolling out devolution across the UK, saying that “I look forward to power coming back to the people, to devolution going to the whole United Kingdom”.
“I look forward to devo-Kent,” he added. “Kent is one of the oldest kingdoms of our country—at the time when Scotland was the kingdom of Fife and others, Kent was a kingdom in her own right.”
Asked about Scottish independence by the BBC, he said that “of course” the union was a voluntary one, but that the SNP “can’t keep asking the same question hoping for a different answer”.
In 2020 he called on the UK Government to pay more heed to Wales’ voice on Brexit trade deals in order to ensure the future of the UK.
“Those deals will only endure truly if the UK holds together and values all parts of this United Kingdom,” he said.
“Will he recognise, therefore, that his role is to promote the voices of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland together to make sure all those four nations achieve the best for the whole United Kingdom?”
He has however attacked the record of the Welsh Government on the NHS, saying that “we have to look to Wales to see how Labour is doing—not well, is the answer.” But he did not expand that into an attack on devolution as a whole.
The general impression of Tom Tungendhat has been similar to that of Penny Mordaunt, i.e. that he is on the more liberal end of the party and, while naturally a Conservative Unionist, is less of an ideological centraliser than some other candidates.
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