During the Falklands war, a BBC reporter famously remarked that he had “counted” Fleet Air Arm planes in and had “counted them back”. Perhaps we should start doing the same with the significantly-enhanced group of 13 Conservative AMs.
Not that there is a fear that some might be lost in combat in a plenary session, or that they might fly off to political pastures new. that’s not a risk, particularly with Plaid (very well known to some of them) in its present state. But the party now possesses a new group leader, Vale of Glamorgan farmer Andrew RT (initials to distinguish him from the former Labour minister) Davies. And Mr Davies, regional AM for South Central, is a person who will listen carefully before deciding. Which is as a politician should do. The difference, of course, is that his predecessor Nick Bourne (Mid & West) was a man with beliefs. Beliefs so strong that he managed to rebuild the group totally from the days it was led by the lively right-winger Rod Richards, who headed an extremely strong campaign for a No vote to an Assembly, and didn’t seem to have changed his opinions much after he had won election.
Nick Bourne is the most obvious casualty of the Labour Party gerrymandering which changed the rules so that a politician could stand for either a constituency or a regional seat – not both. He was unseated when Russell George won Montgomery from the Lib Dems on Mick Bates’s retirement. Labour, of course, didn’t like the idea of dual-candidacy because it could help other parties. (When Labour changed the law they didn’t need to win any regional seats; currently, they have two, because they have won no constituency seats in Mid & West).
No-one doubts the new leader’s Welshness. He has better claims than his predecessor, who was from Worcestershire, although he had been in Wales since student days in Aberystwyth. Mr Davies’s family roots are in Newbridge on- Wye in Powys. His father moved to the Vale to start farming witha 70-acre smallholding until he became a tenant near St. Hilary, Cowbridge, before buying the farm and expanding. (Into how many acres – on two holdings, the other next door to former First Minister Rhodri Morgan at Michaelston-le-Pit – he won’t say. It’s not a done-question, apparently in the Vale!) the real difference between the pair could be over political stance. Mr Bourne was a leader in the left-wing Tory Reform Group, a grouping which fails to line up precisely with the political direction favoured by the Daily Mail and its numerous friends.
Leading members of the TRG include Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, former Welsh Secretary and current Foreign Secretary William Hague, a predecessor in Cathays Park, Peter Walker, David Davis (who quit as MP and then fought the subsequent by-election in protest at erosion of civil liberties), the Llanelli-born MP Robert Buckland (you might remember him from the Islwyn by-election after Neil Kinnock moved on), and Rene Kinzett, Tory group leader of Swansea council. This is the group which hoists aloft the once-discarded banner of one-nation Toryism. Prime Minister David Cameron may not be a member, but he’s certainly a supporter.
Mr Bourne never trumpeted his membership, and Mr Davies is careful not to pick sides on the issue. He talks of his need to represent a group with members from David Melding (South Central) who talks of the need for federalism, to Darren Millar (Clwyd West), who uses language Margaret Thatcher would have favoured. Mr Melding, in contrast, believes Thatcher’s name cripples the party in Wales. But then Mr Millar is a fellow federalist (though, no doubt, they don’t agree completely on that topic!). New in the post, and shadowed extremely closely in the leadership contest by party Leftist Nick Ramsay (despite claims, no recount was needed – there weren’t that many votes), it is perhaps no surprise that Mr Davies is cautious in his views. He is certainly going to be cautious about the possibility of distancing his group from the Tories at Westminster. Even talking about such issues as the Assembly’s controversial voting system.
Cheryl Gillan has already opened her mind to some sort of change to the constituency/regional system. But at present the Welsh Tory leader refuses to take the chance of forging something really radical and democratic, such as the single transferable vote – a system which could produce five-seat constituencies, withall members elected, Irish-style, by PR.
Mr Davies would rather see how the political-land lies. That’s why we’ve got to count his members in and out. How many of his group of 14 lean somewhat left-wards? It’s much easier to count those who don’t: just William George (SouthEast) and Darren Millar, surely. the Rights are easily outnumbered by the Lefties, ranging from the shadow minister (but then they’ve all got that position) whose ancestor faced the slashing sword blades of the 15th Hussars at Manchester in 1819 in a demonstration for Parliamentary reform, to the former Pleidwr.
I fancy the rest are in the middle. And middle-of-the road Tories always want to make whatever it is they are a member of, work, in the hope that the electorate will eventually give them their votes in gratitude. Which is why, of course, the (non-Thatcherite) Tories are the habitual governing party of much of Britain.
gan Clive Betts