Tories take on Labour in Cardiff Bay

Last year they gave it a miss. This year they gave it some welly.

The Welsh Conservative conference was less short and sweet than brief and brutal.

This was a one day conference packed with ministerial speeches that left the faithful in little doubt as to what they must now do: get out there and beat Labour at the General Election.

Image caption The Welsh and Scottish Conservative leaders join forces to take on Labour.

"That vote" urged Francis Maude "is just a year and week away!" He must have seen the look of panic on his audience's faces (including mine) before adjusting it to two years and a week. But next year or the year after, his message was the same : it's tough, it's bracing on the doorsteps but boy, you've got to persuade people that letting Labour sort this out would be a disaster.

So what's the plan?

It's almost as though the penny's dropped in Number Ten. Imagine the moment:

"There IS an alternative - it's Ed 'n Ed."

"Can you IMAGINE it?"

"Well can voters imagine it, that's the point!"

"What WOULD health and education and business development look like in Labour hands? Hang on a minute ..."

Suddenly, markedly, the Welsh Government is in the firing line, or "Labour in Cardiff Bay" as the Prime Minister labelled them. We've heard the attacks during PMQs before now. Take Wednesday's PMQs as the most recent example. But on Saturday, the boot went in again, and again, and again.

Before breakfast, Carwyn Jones' government had been called Stalinists. By elevenses, David Cameron had added to the list:

"The thing is: their whole government reads like a soap opera. They've got an Education Minister who admits they've taken 'their eye off the ball'. A Business Minister who admits she's a fan of Karl Marx. Wales needed the A-Team, instead they got The Muppet Show. But while they're messing it up, we're sorting it out. Backing the hardworking people of Wales."

By tea time they were Muppets who "sit on their lazy arses" - or so the Welsh party leader Andrew RT Davies colourfully put it. And when I describe him as Welsh party leader rather than leader of the Conservative group in the National Assembly, I do so with Mr Cameron's blessing, I think. Tory kremlinologists - read into that what you will.

Ministers had been briefed with a list of what Central Office would headline 'Labour failures' in Wales. Statistics on health specifically - ambulance urgent call-out targets, urgent cancer treatment targets, A+E targets - all missed and all regarded as fertile ground for attack by the Conservatives.

Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats at their conference seemed to have decided against letting Nick Clegg loose on Labour's record in Wales. He took on Cameron and Miliband. Carwyn Jones was left to Kirsty Williams.

So how will Labour respond?

If you're the Welsh Government you blame the UK Government for slashing your budget in the first place. If you're the Shadow Welsh Secretary, you point out forcefully that Labour used to put over the odds into health in Wales, until George Osborne's cuts forced them to make tough choices.

But when the PM has used Wales as a weapon against Labour in PMQs, Ed Miliband has not directly defended it. He's preferred to turn the spotlight back onto the UK Government's record. If the attacks continue next week, next month and the month after that - will Mr Miliband find he starts to come under pressure to start sticking up for Carwyn Jones and his cabinet rather than turning the other cheek?

What else did we learn? That the Welsh leadership still feels it has to tell the party that devolution is here to stay. It must, as a colleague suggested, now almost be part of the housekeeping list at Welsh conference. Fire exits are here, here and here, and oh, please don't re-ignite the battles of 1997.

Those who voted for Andrew RT Davies in the hope he'd turn back the Tory clock will have listened with a sinking feeling.

"Devolution cannot be simply put back into the bottle. I believe we have reached our "Clause IV" moment. We cannot and should not go back to 1997 ... If we want to win in 2016, we need to roll up our sleeves, taking tough decisions and fighting the battles the people of Wales want us to fight, not the fights of 1997".

Got it? He must surely be hoping they have now.