With Paul Davies gone, the battle lines for the next Senedd election are becoming clearer

Mark Drakeford. Picture by Christopher Jones / Alamy Stock Photo. Adam Price. Credit: Euan Cherry/WENN. Welsh Liberal Democrats leader Jane Dodds. Picture by Keith Edkins (CC BY-SA 4.0). Paul Davies. © Russell Hart/Alamy Live News.

Ifan Morgan Jones

The Conservatives’ handling of Paul Davies’ resignation felt a little like their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – the inevitable decision was delayed until there was really no other choice.

Fewer than 24 hours since the party released a statement saying that he had the “unanimous support” of the Senedd group to continue as leader, he was gone.

Whatever transpired in the Senedd on the 8th and 9th of December – and the details are still very murky, no doubt exaggerated by some and downplayed by others – to drink beer and wine in the heart of the Welsh Parliament just days after a hospitality alcohol ban across Wales was clearly not a good look.

However, I don’t think those in Labour and Plaid Cymru enjoying the spectacle of the Welsh Conservative being without a leader a few months from the Senedd election should crow too much.

Paul Davies was a pro-devolution politician in what is very rapidly becoming a devo-sceptic or even abolish-curious party.

Members who want to abolish the Senedd have secured prominent places on the regional lists, leapfrogging some pro-devolution sitting and former Senedd Members.

And it was telling that much of the political pressure on Paul Davies to resign was coming not from his left but from his right – anonymous Senedd candidates, pro-abolish councillors and the website Guido Fawkes.

Likeminded

I had already been wondering in fact to what extent a continuation of Paul Davies as leader would have been feasible beyond the Senedd election.

Even with Paul Davies as leader, his predecessor Andrew RT Davies remained the loudest voice in the party and perhaps the most in-tune with party membership.

Perhaps, if the Senedd election is delayed to the autumn, it’s possible that Paul Davies would have been toppled one way or another anyway.

But what his resignation today has done is probably bring forward the Welsh Conservatives’ transformation into a devo-sceptic or abolish-curious party by one electoral cycle.

Now Andrew RT Davies seems likely to be appointed the caretaker leader in Paul Davies’ place and looks unlikely to be replaced after the election either, as the Senedd group will consist of more likeminded members.

Consensual

Of course, the question is whether any of this is at all likely to make any difference at the Senedd election in May – or whenever it is held.

If the Conservatives go in all guns blazing as a pro-abolish party, they may hoover up some votes from Reform UK and Abolish the Assembly.

Polls certainly show that there is an abolish constituency out there, but it’s one that is concentrated in older age groups and has gradually shrunk since the formation of the Senedd.

Ultimately, becoming the party of abolish doesn’t seem like a great long-term strategy. It’s about maximising the base now rather than reaching out to the centre-ground and building an electoral coalition for tomorrow.

But with Plaid Cymru now fully behind independence, and Labour as the defenders of making devolution work, at least the battle lines going into the election are clear for all to see.

Just a few years ago Senedd politics was being criticised for being too consensual, with four like-minded parties crowding out the centre-ground.

Now the next election is beginning to take on the hue of a three-way referendum on Wales’ constitutional future.

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