In the 103 years that have passed since the end of the first world war, the Conservatives have occupied the UK Government for most of them.

Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair are the only men who have been able to keep them out of office for longer than a single parliamentary term.

Yet, despite their near hegemonic position in England at times, the Conservatives have never replicated that success in Wales.

Since 1885, the Tories have never won the greatest share of seats in a General Election in Wales.

The same is true in Wales since the creation of the Senedd in 1999. Never have the Welsh Conservatives made serious inroads into electoral success; never have they occupied a Senedd government.

The Conservatives, by name and nature, are a ‘unionist’ party. They campaigned against devolution in 1979 and again  in 1997.

But following Wales’ ‘Yes’ vote late in the twentieth century, it was evident the party had to adapt.

From anti-devolution to reluctant acceptance

The National Wales: Wales did say 'yes', just. As the architects of devolution, Labour had a head start. Wales did say 'yes', just. As the architects of devolution, Labour had a head start.

The Tories campaigned against devolution in the 1979 St David’s Day devolution referendum in Wales. A successful ‘no’ vote, when over 79 per cent of the Welsh population voted against a shift to autonomy, was interpreted by the Conservatives as a rejection of devolution once and for all.

The issue was off the table, Mrs Thatcher came to power a couple of months later, and devolution was buried.

Fast forward a couple of decades, however, with a Labour victory in the 1997 UK General Election on the horizon, and devolution was firmly back on the agenda.

Interestingly, William Hague quizzed Tony Blair on plans to offer Wales a weaker form of devolution than Scotland, asking in the UK Parliament in 1996: “Why are your plans for Scotland and Wales so different?”

Labour’s lack of a convincing response made the charge stick. The Welsh being treated as second-rate became one of the key messages of the Conservative’s referendum campaign.

In fact, the Tories opted for this approach in Wales as opposed to a full-blown rallying call of unionism, muted by the belief that fear of devolution causing the break-up of the UK would no longer spook the electorate.

Of course, support for devolution in Scotland at this time was growing by the day. The Tories had to accept that devolution was an inevitability in Scotland, and now not treating Wales as equals would present problems for messaging, and risked the party being stuck in the previous millennium.

Coming to terms with ‘Yes’

Everybody held their breath on the night of September 18, 1997. Of 1,112,117 valid votes cast across Wales, a majority of 6,721 voted in favour of Welsh devolution. Breathe.

Despite opposing devolution, the Conservative Party accepted the 1997 ‘Yes’ result and adopted a cooperative response to implementing it and creating the Welsh Assembly.

With the option of the Assembly acquiring legislative powers ruled out, the Tories endorsed the Labour model of devolution it had recently rejected as second rate.

In their contribution to the Richard Commission, the party stated that it “accepts the current settlement and is committed to making the National Assembly work but is totally opposed to it being granted further powers”.

Torn between not wanting further powers to be devolved and not wanting to appear to back Labour’s version of devolution, the party established its own UK strategy of devolution, based on balance between the UK’s constituent countries, including England.

William Hague, now leading the UK Conservative Party, is said at the time to have preferred either an English parliament or some form of English legislative process within Westminster.

Meanwhile, in Wales, it was time for the Tories to figure out how it was going to fight campaigns in these new Welsh elections.

First two Assemblies – Unionists stumbling to their feet

The National Wales: Nick Bourne led the Conservatives from 1999 to 2011Nick Bourne led the Conservatives from 1999 to 2011

The 1999 Welsh Assembly election delivered just nine AMs for the Welsh Conservatives and the first Assembly saw a period of soul searching. Beaten comfortably back into third place by both Labour and Plaid Cymru, the party was forced to consider themselves for the first time as a more explicitly separate party.

However, when Rod Richards, combative in his anti-devolution stance, became party leader, the initial opportunity to set itself the challenge of locating the optimum centre-right position on the Welsh political spectrum was lost.

Nick Bourne replaced Richards during the first year of the Assembly and proceeded to take a more accommodating view of devolution.

Change in Wales was slow and incremental, however. Meanwhile the Conservatives in Scotland were already making progress in moving on from opposing devolution to working with it.

The party established its Board for Wales, but a distinction between Cardiff and Westminster remained difficult to identify. There were calls at the time for the board to be fully under the control the Welsh Conservative Party. They did not materialise.

Back on their feet, a breakthrough in 2007

The 2007 Senedd election saw a series of breakthroughs for the Welsh Conservatives as they won the constituencies of Cardiff North, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen West, South Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West, all from Labour.

It was an important moment for the party, as it won constituency seats outside of Monmouth for the first time.

Leader Nick Bourne has described this result as confirming the re-establishment of a conservative voice in Wales.

Having stumbled through the first two Assemblies, the Welsh Conservatives now appeared to have found a platform for success in Wales.

I can see a rainbow: The alien concept of coalition-building

The Assembly election in 2007 also created a scenario and opportunity of genuine change in Wales for the Tories.

Labour was four seats short of a majority, a coalition was on the cards, and for the first time, the Tories eyed a shot at power in Wales.

A ‘rainbow coalition’ between the Welsh Conservatives, Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru became known as the ‘third way’ and was explored in detail.

It also led to the introduction of the All Wales Accord, that saw the Welsh Conservatives openly embrace a vision for Welsh culture and language, issues they had been criticised on before.

The Accord signalled a shift in the opposition parties,. They moved from fighting election campaigns as individual entities to coalescing around the notion that Labour’s predicted electoral decline could present the opportunity for coalition and compromise.

However, the Welsh Conservatives failed to embrace a shift toward coalition building with Labour, their arch enemy in a UK context.

Despite his willingness to compromise with the other parties in the Senedd, Bourne refused to prop up a minority Labour government.

Symbolic Tory-Labour bipartisanship remained in place, even though the Welsh electoral system had provided the opportunity to explore a pathway to coalition government.

Would Labour have worked with the Tories anyway? Probably not.

As the rainbow faded, Plaid joined Labour in the "One Wales" agreement, occupying power in Wales for the first time. The Tories remained on the side lines.

Stagnation – the unshakable shadow of history

The National Wales: Andrew RT Davies has led the Tories twice and was the only Conservative leader to back BrexitAndrew RT Davies has led the Tories twice and was the only Conservative leader to back Brexit

Despite an apparent awakening in 2007, the Welsh Conservatives remain adrift of the Welsh Labour Party.

They did win an all-time high 14 seats in the 2016 election, gaining Aberconwy and Montgomeryshire, and served as the official opposition during the Forth Assembly.

Yet, as the UK Conservative Party was continuing to form governments in Westminster, the Welsh Conservatives have yet to find a way into power in the Senedd.

Academic research suggests the Welsh Conservatives have struggled to shake their perception as an ‘English-only’ party, baggage that has held them back.

The party has diverged from its UK counterpart at times, however. In the 2016 European referendum, leader Andrew RT Davies’s position on Brexit was different to both the party’s UK and Scottish leaders, with him backing ‘Leave’.

In doing so, Davies became the only Conservative leader to ‘back the winning horse’, and the only party leader in Wales who reflected Wales’ 52.5 per cent leave vote.

What next for the Tories’ devolution journey?

In an article for The Sunday Times in 2018, Andrew RT Davies questioned whether the 1997 devolution result would be repeated today?

It was a question that rocked the Welsh political establishment that had taken great comfort from the referendum that overwhelmingly said ‘yes’ to more powers for the Senedd in 2011.

At the time, Davies had been replaced as Tory leader, he was free to speak how he wished. But, thanks to some late-night boozing in the Senedd from his replacement and namesake, Paul Davies, Andrew RT Davies is back in control of the Welsh party.

Davies maintains he has never been anti-devolution. He says he wants to focus on things that matter in Wales now as opposed to discussing hypothetic questions around Wales’ constitutional future.

Attention now quickly turns to an election that is just over six weeks away.

Other parties are jostling for position on the issue of Wales’ constitutional future, with Plaid and Labour fighting over voters regarded as ‘Indy-curious’.

Around two thirds of Welsh people still oppose Welsh Independence, polling the Tories hope will provide them with votes as one the parties of the centre ground.

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Yet, some people have read a lot into how the party has selected candidates ahead of the election.

Suzy Davies, long regarded as pro-devolution and an MS in the South Wales West region since 2011, has lost her place on the top of the regional list.

In South Wales Central, the three candidates selected second, third and fourth sent applications to party members setting out their anti-devolution stance.

With Abolish predicted to pick up votes expected to be vacated by UKIP, some Tories feel there’s fruit to be picked on the populist patch of anti-devolution.

Then there is the potential hope to be found in the breach of the ‘red wall’ in North East Wales in the 2019 UK General Election. Was that a one off, or are there electoral lessons to be learnt?

Despite consistently increasing their vote share in Wales, the Welsh Conservatives have failed to mount a sincere challenge to Labour’s dominance.

The work done by Nick Bourne to modernise the party in a Welsh context appears to have hit a ceiling electorally, while it remains integrated into the UK Conservative Party.

Long serving members like David Melding have picked up Mr Bourne’s baton and attempted to lay out their vision for a conservative voice in Wales, but Mr Melding will not be standing this time around.

If they do not occupy government following May 6, the next generation of Welsh Conservatives may find themselves at a crossroad within the woodland of devolution that has grown since the party opposed it in 1997.

The Conservative devolution journey through that woodland has been undulating, but earth can shift quickly in politics and force your hand. If it does, will they stick or twist?

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