The Tories have long had a Welsh problem. Since 1885, they have never won the greatest share of Welsh seats in a general election.

The same is true since the creation of the Senedd in 1999. Never has the party made serious inroads into electoral success; never has it occupied a Senedd government.

On May 6, they delivered their best ever election result, gaining five seats to take their total to 16 while winning just over a quarter of the vote.

However, prior to the election, they were aiming a lot higher.

For Welsh Conservative leader in the Senedd, Andrew RT Davies, the result was a good one, albeit disappointing that his party did not challenge Labour further.

Mr Davies told The National: “It was a good day at the office for us, but it was disappointing that we did not convince enough voters to give us a mandate to govern.

“Being in opposition is no fun at all for a political party because you can’t implement any of your policies.”

As far away from power as ever

The National Wales: Prior to the election, the Tories had big ambitions. Source: Huw Evans AgencyPrior to the election, the Tories had big ambitions. Source: Huw Evans Agency

While the Tories managed to wrestle the Vale of Clwyd and Brecon and Radnorshire away from Labour and the Lib Dems respectively, they failed to make serious inroads in the ‘red wall’ seats in the north east of the country; in which where they performed so handsomely in the 2019 UK general election.

In the south, target seats such as Newport West, Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan did not deliver, and traditional safe blue seats such as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire became marginals.

Despite throwing everything they had at the election, with both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak visiting target seats, some have suggested the Tories have reached a ceiling when it comes to Welsh success.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre, believes the Conservative result shows the limited success the party’s approach to devolution can have.

Professor Wyn Jones told The National: “It is actually a pretty ordinary performance compared to their expectations. They were incredibly confident about how well they would do in Wales and they threw everything they had at it.

“On the face of it, it looks like a good result and it’s a good increase in vote share, but they only won two constituencies which are arguably more about the collapse of Welsh liberalism in Brecon and Radnorshire, and then of course the Vale of Clwyd which was the lowest of low hanging fruits.

“They are further away from power in that they have become an increasingly anti-devolution party. I suspect that this result is the high watermark you can get to by just saying ‘we care about Britain’ and ‘everything is better in England anyway’.”

Typically Tory problems

The National Wales: Tories couldn't retain 2019 voters on May 6. Source: Wales Governance CentreTories couldn't retain 2019 voters on May 6. Source: Wales Governance Centre

Early analysis from the Wales Governance Centre’s Welsh Election Study presented two striking issues for the Tories have when it comes to Senedd elections.

Firstly, of Welsh voters who voted Conservative in the 2019 UK general election, 15 per cent voted for Labour on May 6.

Then, while they do well among people who identify as British, they perform poorly among people who identify as Welsh.

For Professor Wyn Jones, this is a serious issue for the party in terms of how they approach their identity and image.

“They do well among those people who feel strongly British only, but do horribly among those who feel Welsh.

“They spoke about independence almost as much as Plaid did probably thinking that it would somehow be a way of resonating with people who are cautious of devolution.

“The problem they have is there is a segment of the electorate in Wales that’s both anti-European Union and pro-devolution. They’ve assumed that being anti-European and anti-devolution goes hand in hand, which simply isn’t always the case.”

Fresh faces, fresh ideas?

The National Wales: Natasha Asghar is Wales' first BAME female MS. Source: Huw Evans AgencyNatasha Asghar is Wales' first BAME female MS. Source: Huw Evans Agency

While they may be as far away from power in Wales as they have ever been, the Tories are buoyed by nine new faces taking their seats in the Senedd.

With fresh faces and voices come new ideas and approaches, even if they are answers to questions as old as the hills.

READ MORE: 7 lessons from the Senedd election

One new member who does know a thing or two about identity is Natasha Asghar, MS for the South Wales East region and Wales’ first BAME female MS.

Ms Asghar told The National: “If anybody questions our diversity or inclusivity, take a look at me.

“What we do need to do is move people’s mentality away from ‘Margaret Thatcher took away my school milk’, I hear that on the doorstep all the time.

“We have to change people’s Labour mindset in Wales and resonate in people’s minds, so that they do know who we are in the context of Welsh politics.

“We have to make people more aware of what we do because we don’t always sing and dance about it until too close to elections.”

Identity, language and image

The National Wales: Tories have a problem when it comes to Welsh identifiers. Source: Wales Governance CentreTories have a problem when it comes to Welsh identifiers. Source: Wales Governance Centre

If either the Tories or Plaid are going to seriously challenge Labour for power, they must win in traditional Labour heartland seats like the south Wales valleys.

It’s a challenge the Welsh Conservative party has not risen to over the last 22 years, and as it has to-ed and fro-ed on how to combine unionism and devolved politics, Labour has charged on with forging its own identity in a Welsh context.

READ MORE: Why does Labour perform better in Wales than England?

Tom Parkhill, who stood for the Tories in the Plaid-Labour swing seat of Rhondda, admitted his party needs to appear more Welsh in order to break new ground.

Mr Parkhill told The National: “Labour are able to face both ways on identity and the constitution.

“In Rhondda, they ran a unionist campaign, they used Plaid’s referendum as a vote winning tool.

“We will stay as a unionist party, there is broad support for that, but what we do perhaps need to have is more autonomy with a Welsh leader, as opposed to just a Welsh leader in the Senedd.

“Then, we have to be better at embracing the Welsh language. We have success in the north and west with Welsh speaking candidates.

“This is a bilingual country and frankly we need to get better at that and show our distinct Welsh identity as well as our British identity. It is absolutely possible to do both.”

Andrew RT Davies disagrees with the notion that the party does not have a strong enough identity in Wales. He does however acknowledge that the Tories have a real problem barrier when it comes to engaging centre right voters in Wales with Senedd politics.

“People are looking for the party that they can identify with as being a Welsh party standing up for Wales and promoting Welsh values and beliefs,” he said.

“It is a fact that centre right voters predominantly sit out Welsh parliamentary elections and then turn out in Welsh general elections.

“We need to ensure that if people care about health, education, the environment, the economy and infrastructure, then they vote in Welsh parliamentary elections.

“Those are the conversations and discussions that we need to have every day and every week in the run-up to 2026.”

A problem down the M4?

The National Wales: Boris Johnson appears to view devolution as a problem. Source: Huw Evans AgencyBoris Johnson appears to view devolution as a problem. Source: Huw Evans Agency

Five years is a long time in politics, but tests along the way that will challenge whether the Tories can learn lessons and adapt come thick and fast.

Wales goes to the polls again next year for the local authority elections and it will be another test of where the Tories, Labour and Plaid stand in the hearts and minds of Welsh voters.

Unlike its opponents in Plaid and Labour, however, Professor Wyn Jones believes the party faces an additional external threat to its aspirations. A threat from down the M4 in Westminster:

“One of the huge challenges the Conservatives in the Senedd have is it is completely unclear where the UK Government is going.

“Until the Conservative party decide how they are going to behave in their relationship with the devolved institutions, they are stuck in a kind of limbo.”

Limbo is a state no political party wants to be in, but until the Tories spread their message beyond their voter base and engage the disengaged, occupying the corridors of power in Wales appears some way off.

If you value The National's political journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.