Politics World

Not out but definitely down: the Welsh Conservative conference in Llangollen

They’ve tried, they really have tried to make this conference about something more than the Brexit crisis and the problems engulfing the Conservatives.

Speakers have set out what they believe their party has achieved in government in Westminster and what they could do if they were in government in Cardiff. They’ve had a go at Labour and Plaid Cymru and the party chairman in Wales, Byron Davies, exhorted members to ‘put the fun back into politics.’

If it’s fun they’re not showing it. One activist said to me the conference atmosphere was like a funeral. Another told me how downbeat they thought it was. A third said it was just boring. A fourth was deeply depressed about the infighting they see in the party.

Even during the now-infamous heckling incident, most delegates looked down and sat in silence while the bothered minority shouted things like ‘shame,’ ‘you’re a disgrace to the party,’ and ‘out, out, out’ to the man who’d called on the Prime Minister to resign.


Two side points on that incident. One is that to some it typifies all that’s wrong with the party at the moment. ‘We’re not Labour or the Socialist Workers,’ said one delegate. ‘We don’t deal with things in that way.’

The other point is the Boris Johnson connection. Stuart Davies, the man who did the heckling, is a former councillor and long-term activist in the Clwyd South constituency which includes Llangollen. He also happens to have been Boris Johnson’s election agent when Johnson contested Clwyd South in 1997, a time he once joked about by saying ‘I fought Clwyd South and Clwyd South fought back.’

Stuart Davies has stayed in touch with Johnson but insists that he had nothing to do with the reasons why he heckled the Prime Minister on Friday.

Boris Johnson

As it happens, Boris Johnson is due to be here in Llangollen tonight, not to speak at the conference but as guest speaker in the Welsh Conservatives’ gala dinner. Some eyebrows have been raised about the choice given tensions between him and Theresa May but I’m told it doesn’t mean the Welsh Conservatives would endorse him in the leadership election whenever that happens.

You can’t help notice that not one but four potential leadership contenders are here at Llangollen in one way or another. Cabinet ministers Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock are both speaking here today. Brexit minister James Cleverly spoke on Friday. There may not be an official election yet but there’s no doubt those who fancy their chances are making sure they’re meeting the people who could help them get the top job.

Sajod Javid

Others who are still working rooms are the four MEP candidates, but spare a thought for them. Their lives are very surreal. ‘I’m Schrodinger’s candidate,’ one joked. That’s because the party is acting as if the election isn’t happening even while having to prepare for them.

There isn’t even a launch planned. Yet. The lead candidate, Dan Boucher, does have an event planned for next week featuring Jacob Rees-Mogg which is very telling but not official. Or not at the moment. See what I mean about how surreal their situation is?

Byron Davies with Theresa May

One more point. In my interview with Theresa May, the Prime Minister laughed off my questions about the status of Welsh Conservative leader and I have to admit it’s a subject that appears niche and ‘processy’ which is the word politicians use for issues that they’d rather not talk about.

So here’s my defence and the reasons why I’ll keep asking it: It didn’t come from me. I didn’t make it up as a problem. My reporting on it over the years sprang from senior Welsh Conservatives who saw it as an issue that needed to be resolved.

I reported on the rows between Andrew RT Davies and first Cheryl Gillan and then David Jones about the use of the title rather than ‘leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly.’

I reported on the row at the UK party conference over chairs on the stage which resulted in a frankly ridiculous-looking arrangement of too-many chairs jammed onto the set.

When I interviewed David Cameron in 2012 he said that he saw Andrew RT Davies having a wider role of leading the party in Wales.

Senior Tories told me that first Andrew RT Davies and now Paul Davies are the only ones of the three senior figures in Wales (the other two being Chairman and Welsh Secretary) with direct mandates from the party, having been elected by members.

The current leader Paul Davies has spoken about the need to establish that the role is of leader of the party in Wales rather than just being in charge of the Assembly group and is committed to conducting a review of the party structure in Wales.

So, for as long as people keep telling me it’s a problem, I’ll keep asking. In case you wondered.

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