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Politics

Conservatives take aim at own Achilles Heel

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by Jon Coles

ANDREW RT DAVIES, the new and combative Conservative Shadow Health Minister, stepped into new territory for him and the Conservatives in Wales this week.
In recent weeks, the Conservative group in the Senedd has stepped up its attacks on the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting instances where Wales has failed to follow the Westminster Government’s lead on policy decisions.

TURNING A BLIND EYE

With Westminster’s current response to the COVID crisis at sixes-and-sevens, the Shadow Health Minister put in his boot to criticise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead on a contentious policy decision.
In March, the Westminster Government – followed by the UK’s devolved administrations – began discharging hospital patients into care homes. Discharged patients were not tested for coronavirus.
The Herald reported on the scandal at the time. We highlighted instances where care providers, in both Wales and England, were pressurised by health boards and trusts to take untested patients into closed residential settings.
The outcome of that disastrous policy decision was easily predictable. Its likely consequences were well-known – at least by the Westminster Government – at the time it made that decision.
Introducing a virus known to be lethal to vulnerable and elderly patients caused a wave of deaths in care homes across the UK. The virus spread among an isolated and largely defenceless population.
The foreseeable result was a calamity.
Deaths in social care settings spiralled. They remain high even after the first spike of the virus in the general population and its decreasing incidence across the UK.
Wading into the scandal this week, Andrew RT Davies criticised Welsh Government without a moment’s apparent reflection on the wider context of his words.
In a press release, Mr Davies commented: “There can be no excuse for such an ill-thought decision which, of course, will have had a profound impact on some of our most vulnerable in care homes. I cannot comprehend where the government’s thought process was in pushing care homes to accept hospital patients who had not received a COVID-19 test.
“The bullish act by the Welsh Labour-led Government in applying pressure is truly scandalous and as a result, the people of Wales deserve an apology.
“The most pressing question now is to address how many patients were infected after being admitted and then discharged from the hospital. To address people’s serious concerns, this must be a priority for the Welsh Labour-led Government.”
On receipt of the press release, we replied and asked whether Mr Davies wished to extend his tart observations about the discharge of untested hospital patients to include the Westminster Government.
After recent press releases in which the Conservatives have not hesitated to compare Wales unfavourably with England, we believed Mr Davies might reflect and provide a balanced response: possibly to praise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead; possibly to take the chance to even-handedly criticise the Westminster Government’s policy which the Welsh Government followed.
We did not receive a reply.

POLITICISING A PANDEMIC

Over recent weeks, the Conservatives have ramped up partisan rhetoric over the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns, managed to navigate a path between scoring political points and attacking the Welsh Government for its multiple early failings in Wales’ response to the virus.
Those failings include setting a testing target, failing to secure the testing kits necessary to meet the target, saying a testing target didn’t exist, announcing a revised testing target, and then abandoning testing targets altogether.
On each of those, Mrs Burns made telling points and held Wales’ Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, to account – often leaving him wriggling on a hook made of his own contradictions and evasions.
Similarly, when Wales entered the strictest phases of lockdown, Paul Davies was able to highlight the enormously disproportionate impact of them on Wales’ rural economy without indulging the fantasy that somehow things were any rosier over the border.
As the Westminster Government began to ease lockdown restrictions in England, and under pressure from both the Westminster Government and Conservatives on either side of Wales’ border with England, the tone of Conservative briefings changed sharply.
Repeated releases from the Conservatives demanded that the Welsh Government lift the lockdown in Wales in step with England. The Welsh Government was accused of ‘dither and delay’, the phrase ‘catch-up Cymru’ began to appear. Fighting talk appeared in the names of shadow ministers who previously expressed themselves cautiously, occasionally critically, and usually constructively.
With one eye on the next round of elections to the Senedd, the Conservatives moved away from consensus and criticism to outright attack.
Having watched the reopening of schools in England unravel into chaos, Conservative attacks on the reopening of Wales’ schools lost step with reality. Now, the Welsh Government was criticised for taking steps that England failed to take to keep schools open there. The desperate floundering of Westminster’s Conservative Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, stood in stark contrast to the determined and unflustered approach of his Welsh counterpart, Kirsty Williams.
Darren Millar, the Senedd Member charged with speaking for the Conservatives on COVID in Wales, began to speak of Wales’ failings – and particularly those of the Welsh Government – for not reopening pubs, restaurants and holiday accommodation. With Wales’ hospitality and tourism industries on their knees, it appeared that approach would serve the Conservatives well.
As the easing of lockdown in parts of England has unravelled, however, Mr Millar has gone noticeably quiet as Wales continues to lift restrictions now re-imposed in significant areas of England’s north-west.
The Prime Minister’s warnings of the risks of a second wave of the virus should focus Conservatives in Wales’ attention on what preparations the Welsh Government is making to head-off that eventuality or at least ease its impact if or when it arrives. Instead, Andrew RT Davies is fighting four-month-old battles seeking headlines.

CONSERVATIVES NOT ALONE

One of the features of the crisis has been how Plaid Cymru has used it to propel its own message for an independent Wales – or at least a Welsh legislature with far stronger powers than the current arrangements.
‘Westminster doesn’t work for Wales’ is how Plaid has pitched its message. Its fire is concentrated on the shambolic approach of the Westminster Government’s response to the crisis. The Prime Minister’s endless capacity to make up policy on the hoof when caught out or tell outright lies when questioned about details has given Plaid Cymru ample opportunity to illuminate the gap between Westminster’s rhetoric and reality.
The Westminster Government’s hectoring approach to the UK’s devolved administrations, which includes gazumping the Welsh Government on a deal for testing kits with pharmaceutical giant Roche, and its constant inconstancy and inconsistency has also allowed Plaid to deploy
its choir of voices demanding more autonomy – preferably independence – for Wales.
When attacking the Welsh Government, however, Plaid has taken a different approach to the Welsh Conservatives. It has clamoured to keep restrictions in place – for example on schools – and for existing restrictions to be strengthened and reinforced – for example on face coverings, a policy on which it is eerily close to the Conservatives’.
However, Plaid – and the Conservatives – have fallen well short of saying what they would have done differently in the same situation and what they would do now to improve things during the continuing COVID age.

ONE EYE ON THE ELECTION

By the time next May comes around, both of Wales’ principal opposition parties need to set out defined messages that are both less negative and more grounded in current reality if either is to shift Labour from power in Cardiff Bay.
For the Conservatives, the challenge is finding a voice for Wales which is not an echo of Westminster. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that efforts to reform the Conservatives in Wales to forge a distinct identity from the UK party are likely to be seed falling on stony ground. Darren Millar is Boris Johnson’s representative on Earth and Simon Hart his rock. A more constructive approach from the Conservatives is, therefore, highly unlikely.
For Plaid Cymru, the challenge is moving beyond dreams of jam tomorrow in favour of policies for today. Plaid need to focus less on what Westminster isn’t doing for Wales but what Plaid CAN deliver for the whole of Wales and not just its existing voters. Plaid’s problem is systemic. It lacks resources and, while it well-organised in pockets of Wales outside ‘Y Fro’, it has not found the key to unlock monoglot Anglophone voters in sufficient numbers across Wales.
As for Labour in Wales, all it can promise is more of the same. It’s been in power for over twenty years and it isn’t likely to change a formula that’s kept it in power for so long. And, when it comes to the economy, Labour can point out that the big levers are held by the Exchequer in London.
The Conservatives and Labour have the advantage of a large electoral base across most of Wales. If they can energise those voters to turn up and vote next May in anything like the numbers they did in the General Election, Plaid will have to watch out for a massive squeeze on their far smaller electoral base

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Paul Davies MS quits as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd

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PRESELI Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies quit as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd this morning.

The Conservatives’ Chief Whip also quit his frontbench role.

The dramatic move comes only 24 hours after Mr Davies got the Conservative Senedd Group’s unanimous backing.

However, later yesterday (Friday, Jan 21) – as criticism poured in – the Welsh Conservatives’ Executive met. In that meeting, Constituency Chairs reported widespread disbelief and anger among the Party’s members. Conservative Party Chair, Lord Davies of Gower, received particular criticism for a lack of leadership. Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, also attended the meeting and was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling within the Party.

In a statement issued via the Conservative Senedd media office, Mr Davies said: “I am truly sorry for my actions on the 8th and 9th December. They have damaged the trust and respect that I have built up over 14 years in the Welsh Parliament with my colleagues and the wider Conservative Party but more importantly with the people of Wales.
“Whilst using the Senedd facilities at all times my colleagues and I maintained social distancing. There was no drunk or disorderly behaviour. We did not have to be escorted out of the building as some reports have suggested. What we did was to have some alcohol with a meal we heated up in a microwave, which was a couple of glasses of wine on Tuesday and a beer on Wednesday.
I broke no actual Covid-19 regulations.

“For the last 10 months of the pandemic, I have followed the Covid-19 regulations to the letter. As with everyone across Wales, I have not seen family members or friends, I’ve not eaten at my favourite restaurants and, like you, we enjoyed a subdued Christmas compared to other years. I will continue to follow the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Regulations and I would urge everyone to play their part in defeating this virus so that we can all return to normality.

“My priority as Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Welsh Parliament has always been to bring the Conservatives into government in Wales. Our main focus as the Welsh Conservatives must always be on challenging and removing a failing Labour government.

“I am grateful for the support of colleagues in the Welsh Conservative Party for their support in this difficult time, and especially to my wife Julie and my Senedd colleagues who have offered empathy, trust and advice. They have treated me with the same courtesy and decency I hope I have always extended to others.

“Over the last couple of days, I have been speaking with colleagues in the Senedd and the wider Conservative Party. Whilst they have confirmed they do not wish to see me step down, I believe that my actions are becoming a distraction from holding this failing Welsh Labour-led Government to account, not just on their rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines but from more than 20 years of their dither, delay and failure. Yesterday I indicated to the Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament that I wished to resign, but they urged me to reflect further, and we agreed to meet again on Monday. However, for the sake of my party, my health and my own conscience, I simply cannot continue in post.

“Therefore, I am stepping down as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament with immediate effect.”

“It is for the group to decide how best to choose a new leader, but I hope that process will be seamless and speedy, and I pledge my support to whoever becomes leader.”

Darren Millar blamed ‘wildly inaccurate and unfair reports’ and said:

“There was a member of catering staff present in the tea room for a short time after my arrival on the 8th December but she did not serve me a drink, nor did I request one. In fact, I encouraged the member of staff to go home and close up the counter as it had been a long day for her. No members of catering staff were present on the 9th December and the counter was closed for the whole evening.

“While I am advised that I did not breach coronavirus regulations I am very sorry for my actions, especially given the impact of the tough restrictions that people and businesses are enduring.

“For this reason, and given that Paul Davies has resigned as Welsh Conservative Group Leader in the Senedd, I have decided to step down from my front bench role in the Welsh Parliament.

“I am cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and will continue to do so.”
Whoever replaces Paul Davies, the role is likely to an interim appointment ahead of a vote of the Party membership after the Senedd election.

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Conservatives’ lockdown lock-in investigated

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party is investigating senior Senedd members and staff’s attendance at a lockdown lock-in held on December 8.

The allegations concern a meeting in the Members’ tearoom between Labour backbencher Alun Davies and Conservative group members and their support staff.

Conservative Chief of Staff Paul Smith, Darren Millar MS the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, and Preseli Pembrokeshire MS, the Conservative Group Leader Paul Davies attended the meeting.

The incident took place on December 8, barely a week after hospitality businesses in Wales were forced to close.

Those present claim they met in the members’ tea room to discuss legislation for possible inclusion in the Welsh Conservative manifesto with the former Labour Cabinet Minister.

On December 8, the Senedd finished early because of technical issues with webcasting equipment. The record of the adjourned shows the Plenary Session attended by members ended around 5:45 in the evening.

The Sun newspaper alleges that drinking continued until the early hours of the following (Wednesday) morning.

‘WE DIDN’T BREAK THE RULES’

Those attending deny any breach of the lockdown rules.

A joint statement from Paul Davies, Darren Millar, and Paul Smith said: “We are profoundly sorry for our actions.

“While we did not break the rules, we recognise that what was part of a day’s work would not be seen to be following the spirit of them, especially given the tough time the country has been going through.”

Monmouth Conservative MS Nick Ramsay was named among those present in the tearoom at the time. His name was not, however, attached to the joint statement referred to above.

On Wednesday (January 20), Mr Ramsay denied he attended any ‘gathering’ on the day in question

However, his statement is profoundly unhelpful to the others named.

Through his solicitor, Mr Ramsay confirmed he was at the tea room on his own at the Senedd, without an invitation from anyone else, after work.

“He was hungry, and he wanted to get something to eat. He was working on an article for the Argus (his local newspaper). He sat on his own and was socially distanced,” said his solicitor.

“He attended the tea room at approximately 6 pm. He had chicken curry. He left at about 8 pm. Others came in whilst he was there, but it was not a ‘gathering’ Mr Ramsay was part of.”

Taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, he spent two hours in the tea room, and there was ’a gathering’, with people coming in and out.

Two hours is a long time to discuss an uncontroversial potential manifesto pledge with a Government backbencher.

Again, taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, an inference exists that the ‘gathering’ continued after he left.

If The Sun’s claims that the ‘manifesto discussions’ extended to 2:00 am are accurate – and an internal probe by the Senedd Commission is bound to find out – those involved are doomed.

MILLAR’S WORDS HAUNT TORIES

Darren Millar’s presence intensifies the Conservatives’ embarrassment at talking the talk but not walking the walk.

In May, Mr Millar led calls for Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething to be sacked for eating a bag of chips in a park with one of his own children.

When it comes to words a speaker might regret in the future, Darren Millar’s video demand for Vaughan Gething’s dismissal is one hell of a hill to choose to die upon.

It doesn’t help when your party leader doubles down on the same issue, by alluding to it in a television interview months later.

“I don’t think anybody should break the rules,” Paul Davies said, seizing the moral high ground in an ITV Wales interview from September.

“The rules were there whether you were travelling to Barnard Castle or you were travelling to buy some chips. No one should have been breaking the rules.”

Suppose the Conservative Party follows the logic of their previously stated positions. In that case, Mr Millar’s and Mr Davies’ futures look bleak indeed.

Number 10’s response was less than a ringing endorsement.

Speaking at a lobby briefing, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said she had not spoken to the prime minister about whether Paul Davies should stay.

She added: “The prime minister needs everybody – no matter their status, no matter their position in life – to be going above and beyond in following the rules on Covid.”

To his credit, Vaughan Gething rejected the opportunity to knife Mr Millar when asked about the lockdown lock-in.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

With a Senedd election only months away, the revelations have thrown the Conservatives into disarray.

Bitter recriminations have whistled around the media, involving briefing and counter-briefing from within the Conservative Party’s own ranks.

Candidates who are justifiably angry and at the sharp end of voters’ reactions have been told to shut up. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for who leaked the story.

This writer can confirm he was told about an unspecified issue involving chief whip Darren Millar before Christmas. Supposing it referred to Mr Millar’s personal life, he shelved it.

Just after the New Year, he was told Central Office was examining an issue concerning the Chief Whip and Chief of Staff.

More details emerged about an alleged party in the Senedd during lockdown which involved Senedd Members and their staff. At this stage, ten days ago at the time of writing, the story’s bones were in place. Shortly afterwards, we discovered national media already had much of the same information.

We probed further and, this Tuesday afternoon decided we had enough to publish. We invited the Conservative group press office to respond.

With the Welsh Government under increasing criticism after Mark Drakeford’s disastrous appearance on Radio Four on Monday, an opportunity to spike the Conservative guns was desperately needed.

One theory runs that Alun Davies, the Labour Member concerned, was turned in by another member of the Labour group – a Regional Member of the Senedd – who dislikes him.

It is not going too far to suppose that throwing Alun Davies under the bus to get at the Conservatives’ big guns was a price Labour thought worth paying.

The Labour press office’s statement and Alun Davies’ carefully-phrased appeared in Cardiff-based media minutes after we broke the story online.

We hadn’t even requested a comment from Labour before publishing our original article.

Having a statement ready, showed remarkable foresight by Labour’s spin machine.

None of the above distracts from the embarrassment the Conservatives have suffered.

That has not prevented a certain amount of gallows humour.

Among the tarter observations made to The Herald by one insider was that after going so aggressively at Vaughan Gething over ‘Chipgate’, things couldn’t have rebounded on a more deserving Welsh Conservative than Darren Millar.

LEADERSHIP QUESTIONS

Paul Davies is widely respected as a decent man whose own moderate and constructive instincts were pushed aside in favour of more combative and aggressive messaging.

The Conservatives’ tone in their media statements and appearances has notably calmed down in the last couple of months.

Some insiders claim Paul Davies’ failure to clamp down on his candidates’ anti-devolution rhetoric is a sign of weak leadership. They say failing to be upbeat about devolution could reap the whirlwind at elections to the Senedd.

However, the blame doesn’t all lie with Paul Davies; the nonsensically fractured leadership model the Conservatives have in Wales is also to blame.

Conservative MS David Melding wrote that an alien landing at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Llandudno who asked to be taken to the leader, would have three possible candidates: Simon Hart MP, Lord Davies of Gower (the Party Chair), or Paul Davies MS.

Where there are three centres of power, there are competing interests and egos. That causes friction. And friction produces a lot of heat and not much light.

If Paul Davies stood down, there are not many options to replace him.

David Melding and Angela Burns (the most moderate and most politically able respectively) are standing down.

Darren Millar would be out of the running.

Nick Ramsay’s problems with his Monmouthshire constituency rule him out.

Laura Anne Jones succeeded the late Oscar Ashgar last year, although she has previously been an Assembly Member.

In the last leadership election, Suzy Davies, runner up to Paul Davies, finished eighth in her party’s list primary in South Wales West. She faces a ferocious constituency contest in Bridgend.

That does not leave a vast pool from which to draw a leader: Russell George, Janet Finch-Saunders, Mark Isherwood and the elephant in every room, former leader Andrew RT Davies.

Andrew RT Davies failed to command the backing of the Senedd group and left in a huff. The composition of the Senedd group has not much changed since then. However, Andrew RT Davies’ former Chief of Staff and devoted Senedd abolitionist Chris Thorne is head of campaigns for the Conservatives in Wales. It’s a combination that may play well with the faithful but repel the voters and the Senedd group.

The lack of an obvious alternative could play to Paul Davies’ advantage. Besides, any new leader’s appointment would, necessarily, be interim. If the Senedd election goes badly, they become a footnote. If it goes well, they might still be picked off in a subsequent poll of party members favouring another candidate more appealing to them.

Such an approach went well with Jeremy Corbyn.

And, of course, the Senedd election could be delayed, leaving any interim leader in limbo as party members whinge at not having had a say in electing them.

Whatever – or whoever – happens next, the Conservatives will need good luck and a following wind to cling onto their current relative strength in Wales’ opinion polls.

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Price pledges independence referendum

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A PLAID CYMRU Government – able to command the support of a majority of Senedd members – will offer a referendum on independence for Wales in its first term, party leader Adam Price said.

The Plaid Cymru Leader made the announcement in a keynote address on Welsh independence from the St David’s Hotel in Cardiff.

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price claimed that devolution is “under attack” from the Conservative Westminster Government and that with Scotland likely to become independent by 2025 and Brexit making a united Ireland possible, the “momentum of change” has accelerated the need to hold a referendum on Welsh independence by 2026.

Mr Price, the only prospective pro-independence candidate to become First Minister will be responding to the report published by the arms-length Independence Commission in September. It had suggested holding two independence referenda within a decade – the first one exploratory to gauge people’s views in order to persuade the UK Government to hold a binary referendum.

Noting that support for independence was at its “highest” in history, the Plaid Cymru Leader will also confirm that a Plaid Cymru Government would offer one binary choice referendum on Welsh independence and will encourage all those who want independence for Wales to vote for Plaid Cymru in May.

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price said: “Devolution itself – that most basic democratic principle that decisions affecting Wales should be made in Wales – is under attack from Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the demand for another independence referendum in Scotland is becoming unstoppable and by 2025 Scotland could well be an independent country.  And Brexit has also given further impetus to the calls for a united Ireland.

“Wales is in real danger of being be left behind as part of a rump United Kingdom, in a new England-and-Wales formation – which would be the ultimate worst of all worlds.

“It is for these reasons that I, therefore, pledge today that subject to party approval a Plaid Cymru Government, able to command a majority in the Senedd, will offer a referendum on independence for Wales in its first term.

“It’s implicit in the present Covid crisis – the sense that something new and better must come out of this.  Next May, electors won’t just want to carry on with the Old Wales. They will be looking for a new direction, one that offers hope, vision, and ambition. It is our job in Plaid Cymru to provide that hope, that vision, that ambition for real, radical change.

“Independence is the most radical idea in Welsh politics today. The last two polls on independence put it on its highest support in history.  An argument once derided as a pipe dream has moved from the margins to the mainstream.

“But whilst banners and marches fuel our fire, the Welsh spring will only truly bloom at the ballot box in May. If you want independence, you have to vote for it by voting Plaid Cymru.

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