State of Play 1 - The Tories
- 14 August 2012
- From the section Wales politics
Hello all - it's @TobyMasonBBC here with some summer political reading, and a chance for a look in detail at the fortunes of the four main parties in Wales. What's the current state of play, what might the next year or so hold for them - and how might their strategies unfold?
First up, let's examine the Welsh Conservatives. It would not be an understatement to say that the party in Wales is close to a state of civil war. Tensions between Cardiff and Westminster, whose origins date back years, are coming to a head. What was a fracture has become a fissure and is approaching a chasm.
The most yawning - but not the only - divide is between the Assembly group in Cardiff Bay and the Wales Office. Relations here have broken down almost entirely. I don't have the time to spend with the BBC's lawyers trying to find out exactly which descriptions of the occupants of the Wales Office routinely used by the Cardiff side I could safely bring you without risking a trip to the libel courts - but take it from me that they're as vicious as anything I've heard in politics for a very long time.
Large parts of the Assembly group feel marginalised, belittled, betrayed - take your pick - by a succession of announcements from Whitehall that they say have blindsided the party's AMs. The green paper on Assembly electoral reform, regional pay, regional benefits, the Supreme Court referral for the byelaws bill and several others have left them scrambling to try and defend positions they're often diametrically opposed to.
Some Tory AMs suggest their main sources of intelligence on upcoming coalition policy and strategy announcements from Westminster are largely corridor chats with Liberal Democrat AMs - who, they feel, are kept considerably better in the loop about what's coming down the track.
Their antipathy towards Gwydyr House is amply reciprocated, however. Wales Office sources point to examples of past confidential briefings to the Assembly group finding their way into the public domain all too readily.
And Andrew RT Davies' call for the Assembly to be renamed the Welsh Parliament last week was a new low in terms of what Cheryl Gillan and her deputy David Jones probably regard as a pretty crude and clumsy campaign of jockeying by RT and his advisers to try and declare a form of UDI for the Welsh party by the back door. The principal benefit of this announcement for RT appears to have been that it was not cleared with the Wales Office in advance and was therefore guaranteed to get up the Secretary of State's nose. It received a predictably sniffy response: "not a priority".
There was an olive branch of sorts from the former AM Glyn Davies, now PPS to Cheryl Gillan, who wrote on his blog that Mr Davies "is beginning to make his mark on Wales" and that his call for a Welsh Parliament showed that he was "proving to be an astute and interesting leader". I'm not convinced this view is universally held throughout the Wales Office and the Tory benches at Westminster, however.
Rather than try and find some sort of entente, most Conservative AMs now seem to pin their hopes for the future on David Cameron's expected reshuffle, due in early September. The prospect of Bridgend-educated Maria Miller, the current UK Minister for Disabled People, and MP for Basingstoke as the new Welsh Secretary doesn't fill them with wild enthusiasm - but mention the member for Clwyd West stepping up from deputy to the Cabinet table and the most common reaction is akin to that of an ice cube running down their backs.
But all is not entirely rosy in the garden for Andrew RT Davies either. Although talk of an internal challenge to his position in some quarters is wide of the mark, there are still plenty of concerns within his group about both the style and substance of his leadership.
Nick Bourne was a consultative, consensual leader, whose authority derived in part from having his group on board with his strategy. Voices within the group talk of his successor closeting himself away with advisers to discuss strategy and tactics, leaving the rest of his AMs out in the cold. The emergence of the Tory group chair and former leadership rival Nick Ramsay on Radio Wales over the weekend to reveal that he and his colleagues had little advance knowledge of the Welsh parliament renaming wheeze - and were lukewarm at best - would be Exhibit 1A.
If he has carved out a distinctive new agenda since his elevation to the group leadership, it's still not evident to many of those around him, let's put it that way.
There are particular concerns about First Minister's Questions, the only real opportunity for the leader of the opposition to land a blow on Carwyn Jones. There's frustration that week in, week out, RT seems to gets involved in a macho, chest beating confrontation with the First Minister, one that it's nigh on impossible for him to win.
A little less blunderbuss, a little more rapier is the hope of many of those around him for the coming term. It's not clear how many of his AMs took the opportunity to convey this message to him during the series of "one on one" clear the air discussions Mr Davies initiated with each of them last term. The meetings weren't widely seen as the actions of a strong leader comfortable in his position either.
On top of all this are the relations between elected Tory politicians and what they invariably refer to as "the voluntary party" - principally the Board which runs the party's affairs in Wales. The debacle of its decision to cancel the party's conference in Llandudno earlier this year still casts a long shadow, but the fact that it didn't lead to immediate moves to restructure the relationship is indicative of the membership's silent strength. As he tried to hold the line on the conference that wasn't, Mr Davies must have cast an envious look around the chamber at the three other leaders who enjoy far more of a grip on their parties than he could ever hope to have.
So where does all this leave the Welsh Conservatives? Part of their problem, one senses, is they haven't yet managed to define exactly what the role of a lead opposition party in the National Assembly really is.
At the moment there seems to be an emphasis on a kind of guerilla-style approach, ambushing the Welsh Government on issues such as the cost of ministerial ringbinders and the number of miles travelled annually in official cars to try and fashion the narrative of profligate administration.
What's missing due to this approach is the sense of an alternative government, of spelling out a different direction for the country that a Tory-led administration would take. But until its internal issues are resolved, it's surely a big ask for the party to start looking outwards with any real confidence.
Tomorrow: the year ahead for Plaid Cymru