“Much like our world famous Welsh choirs, our unique Conservative voice in Wales must be distinct.” 

Andrew RT Davies has realised his party is in trouble. Not just electorally but also in terms of its identity, as we know that in Wales degrees of Welshness and winning votes are intrinsically linked.

Political parties can only be successful if they are naturalised in the national community. Over recent years, the Conservatives have failed in Wales: they are increasingly perceived as outsiders.

Davies’ speech at the party conference this week was not surprising in making a bombastic pivot to re-building the Welsh Conservatives, a party that has ebbed and flowed in its electoral performance but remains a fixture in politics.

Davies even insisted that its brand remained “strong” after a disastrous set of election results this month. He is wrong. Whatever line you hear about clear blue water emerging again, remember they are a long way off.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson highlights nuclear power plans when questioned about food bank use in Wales

Davies’ speech was noteworthy in policy terms for two reasons. First, the call to make St David’s Day a bank holiday, an immensely popular nonpartisan campaign; and, second, in arguing that Wales should be given fair funding for the development of HS2 in England.

These were astutely symbolic gestures to make.

Recognition for our patron saint aligns the Conservatives with other parties on Welsh nationhood, while more money for Wales is always a good (and, in this case, extremely just) cause. Most significantly, they were rare moments that pitted the Welsh Conservatives against their English counterparts.

But with some pragmatism came predictability.

Listing the successes of the UK government is now a tired tribute act at every single conference, so too are the barbs that Welsh Labour have “abandoned” communities across the country.

There is little substance behind encouraging a bunch of Tories to put on the “red jersey” to “unleash the potential” of Wales.

Generalisations around that infamous Welsh Conservative brand, positioned to match the distinctiveness of male voice choirs and standing “strong and tall” in the wheat fields, are weak and small.

Phrase by phrase, one could only conclude that Davies had struggled to find what path he should take the party on over the coming months.

There was nothing clear to say about the future strategy of Welsh Conservatives beyond marketing slogans and that it would be what it hasn’t in recent years: distinct.

I suspect Davies will struggle to take forward the issue beyond this week just as the list of outstanding questions grows longer.

Who does the party appeal to and stand for? Can Davies bring his own Senedd members and circling devosceptics with him? How will the party position itself beyond a pressure group shouting down a bigger Senedd? How far are Welsh colleagues really able or want to embrace distinctiveness over being in the shadow of English Tories?

One great unasked question that trumps these is the one of leadership.

Davies’ second coming to the helm of the Welsh Conservatives only came after his namesake was forced to resign over drinking on Senedd premises during the pandemic.

The fact Andrew RT Davies was the only assumed successor reflects the poor talent pool that has always grinded the party’s development. Yet there are now new faces to pick from, the MS for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Sam Kurtz chief among them. 

A Welsh speaker with a farming background, he would be well-liked by the Tory base but also reach beyond heartlands to deliver results.

He has been the most prominent Welsh Conservative who has come out to support a bigger Senedd.

He clearly understands the Tory tradition is not based on ideology but pragmatism. That will certainly have to be the case in an ever-more radical Welsh context, a notion which many of his colleagues struggle with to their detriment.

READ MORE:

Davies is right that “Wales and Welshness don’t belong exclusively to Labour” but Mark Drakeford is skilful in making it appear so.

Davies has long appealed to a certain Anglocentric base in Wales, and many conservatives (small 'c') will always turn out to vote for the party in any case.

With a new leader, there is every chance to expand the party's horizons for the first time in a decade, re-setting what Wales and Welshness means to a new generation of Welsh Conservatives from the centre ground.

Even then, having the right people around a relatively young and inexperienced politician will be difficult to get right.

Nevertheless, who leads the Welsh Conservatives going forward is an imminent yet currently taboo question.

After all, Andrew RT Davies has returned to the frontline and fronted two elections. He is highly unlikely to lead the party into another in Wales.

Time will be needed for a new figure to assert their imprint on the party and the country. 

It’s time Welsh Conservatives start planning for the future. Otherwise, like before in Wales, they will struggle to find their place in it.

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