Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West, asked the question we had all been waiting for.

Did Jacob Rees-Mogg think the leader of the Welsh Conservatives was a “lightweight” like his Scottish counterpart? And, just to be sure, could he give us his name?

A nervous chuckle and rosy cheeks at the despatch box are normally reserved for tricky questions or jokes, but for the Leader of the House of Commons this gentle probe was clearly both: he had no idea or real concern over who led his party in Wales.

The record must note in this side-story of partygate that Rees-Mogg was technically correct when he referred to the ‘Secretary of State for Wales’ in his answer, no matter how humiliating that may be for Andrew RT Davies.

Simon Hart and the Welsh Tory chairman, Lord Davies of Gower, have over time and in convoluted ways shared leadership of the party with the group leader in the Senedd.

Constitutionally, as Andrew RT Davies admitted this week, there is no leader of ‘his’ party at all. The lingering taboo of who is really in charge – in practice and principle – is one matter that Welsh Conservatives must eventually confront among other seismic strategic issues.

READ MORE: Welsh Conservatives remain quiet on Downing Street parties scandal

First that extraordinary but brief exchange.

Nationalists say it exposes how little clout Wales has in Westminster. Others, equally predictable, have already made up their mind about Rees-Mogg’s eccentricities (so alien they are to Welsh society), and there is merit in viewing such ignorance in the ironic prism of Conservative championing of the Union too.

Yet the most valuable lesson is to review what it means for Welsh Conservatives and the party’s position within an internal hierarchy and in the politics of the country more widely.

Throughout the pandemic and during sensational drama this week Andrew RT Davies has led by defending political superiors in London.

His hopes, we must assume, are pinned on the off-chance Johnson’s political decline isn’t terminal and his appeal to Red Wall seats will re-emerge.

Forget the morality of condemning politicians with little regard for the rules they themselves set, this exposes the Welsh Conservatives’ poor political judgement.

Though his downfall may not be fast – rarely the collapse of premierships are in British politics, as per Major and May – growing numbers of the Prime Minister’s own backbenchers have concluded that a Shakespearean tragedy is nearing its end.

Douglas Ross may have sensed that in his phone call with Johnson this week. A day after proclaiming he would call for Johnson to resign if the Prime Minister had attended the Downing Street garden party in May 2020 and broken his own government’s restrictions, Ross led his MSPs in doing just that.

Rees-Mogg’s now infamous quip that Ross was a “lightweight” was reckless and exposed an already shattered relationship between Scottish and English Conservatives.

The unhappy marriage between Johnson and Ross is now irrevocably broken; the latter will, however, hope that his bold decision will be rewarded in May’s local elections and that an electoral monkey is off his back.

READ MORE: Conservatives in Powys are in dispute over school closures

RT was, to little surprise, in no mood for rebellion with his Members of the Senedd. He assiduously followed the wimpish Cabinet line that the Prime Minister maintained his confidence, was right to apologise and that it was “vital” to carry on the work he was doing as an investigation into Downing Street parties continued.

The response, if we are to judge from the Twitterati, was indignation and laughter. Though social media can be a horrid place, rarely do we see Welsh Labour politicians lining up to castigate the leader of the largest opposition party in the Senedd so clinically.

Education Minister Jeremy Miles was most succinct to call the initial RT defence “utterly predictable, sadly.” It is disappointing; for those of us that believe Wales needs a functional centre-right to make politics work and others who want to see Wales as a plural democracy.

The ‘leader’ of the Welsh Conservatives is by no means a fool but the party’s strategy has been haphazard and unconvincing for several years, disrupted by an anti-devolution coup in last year’s Senedd election and an overwhelming Anglocentrism in its preference to policy.

Ironically, it is only when working with Plaid Cymru on issues such as agricultural NVZ regulations and initial opposition to Covid passports that the Welsh Conservatives have been able to pressure the Welsh Government.

READ MORE: Welsh Conservatives must decide who they speak for

Just to “carp on about pubs” opening in England earlier during the pandemic is no real productive use of time, as former leader Nick Bourne admitted to me in an interview last year.

But assiduous readers of The National Wales are tired of hearing the same rehearsed arguments about the need for a pragmatic centre-right party in Wales, one that feels comfortable in its own skin and formulating distinctive policy when productive and necessary.

The learnings of Ruth Davidson’s time as leader in Holyrood have been made repeatedly but similarly ignored. She and David Cameron were famously “political soulmates” but respected one another’s authority and autonomy.

Welsh Conservatives, by contrast, have little significance to Downing Street: Wales is viewed as a boring backwater while its regional Tory party is not troublesome or successful enough to warrant attention.

They are excuses which should shame Welsh Conservatives to assert their position as a distinct force in Wales rather than act like a provincial office of its headquarters across the border.

Doing so is within its electoral interest. Brexit may have blurred the lines between Wales and England, but the last eighteen months have undoubtedly shifted the dial on devolution and the enduring popularity of Welsh Labour.

Current polls suggest a Tory wipe-out at the next General Election in Wales. Johnson’s troubles are no doubt a major factor in explaining why the public would prefer a professor in charge rather than a performer; that being said, an alternative to Mark Drakeford is not left-of-centre Plaid Cymru but a Conservative party that wants to win in Wales. That is an opportunity.

Becoming ‘more positively involved in Welsh public life’ appears a ludicrously basic suggestion, but that is where the Welsh Conservative party is.

READ MORE: After 100 years, Wales will always be a one-party state

There are causes for hope in the future, with the limited talent pool the party has producing rough gems such as Sam Kurtz, who is carving out a role as an intelligent, rural and Welsh-speaking voice in the Senedd.

Leadership, however, is some years away from a politically inexperienced Pembrokeshire farmer. 

With local elections in May, followed by national elections in 2024 and 2026, there should be an added urgency to reposition and rebuild a distinctive Welsh Conservative brand.

After all, if tensions between Holyrood and London escalate, it may not just be Labour members that call for an independent party based in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

READ MORE: Campaigners say Welsh Labour should become a 'sister party'

Perhaps this explains why the Welsh Conservatives have advertised a role to be Director of Strategy and Communications. Who would be brave enough to take it?

Political parties are not just about the leader or their team, but clarity from politicians and their constituencies about what they collectively represent.

Re-aligning Welsh Conservatives to be a force in Wales, while still lacking intellectual depth and political heavyweights, is no easy task.

The first step the party and its elected members in Wales can take is to be honest about whether they are capable of making independent decisions in their own interest. Otherwise this vicious cycle will go on repeating itself.

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