As it was an unseasonably sunny day, I decided to walk along the Thames rather than the tunnel of shade that was Whitehall – its government buildings on either side obstructing the sunlight that only enhanced the murky brown of the river.
I was on my way to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) where I had arranged to discuss the Welsh Conservatives with one of its ministers. Although an initially odd thought, when one considers that Lord Bourne not only doubles as a minister at the DECC and the Wales Office but also was leader of the party in Wales for over a decade, it appears far less surprising!
As I entered the departmental building I was confronted by a set of what look like giant Perspex tubes, which resemble the lift type-thing that Katniss Everdeen uses to enter the arena in ‘The Hunger Games’. An aide gestured that he had come to escort me to the ministers’ office and half of the tube opened enabling me to step into the centre. It then proceeded to close behind me before the front half opened, granting me access to the building. I expressed my curiosity to the aide about this odd mode of entry, who believed it had something to do with the nuclear information the DECC deals with.
A few moments later I was sitting in Lord Bourne’s office. We began by discussing his thoughts on the recent General Election as it pertained to Wales. After defeating Labour in their fourth target seat, Craig Williams, the newly elected Member of Parliament for Cardiff North, – and Lord Bourne’s former researcher – declared that this election was a“game changer” for the Welsh Conservatives. Indeed, the result on May 7th represented the largest seat haul for the Conservative Party in Wales since 1983. Nevertheless, Lord Bourne was more cautious in his celebrations. Whilst acknowledging Williams’ “understandable euphoria”, the minister preferred to describe the general election result as “yet another staging post…on a recovery that, for the Welsh Conservatives, had started quite a bit earlier”. He did, however, admit that, overall, it was “certainly a remarkable night” and singled out the win in Gower, a seat “we had never, ever won before”, as the most significant result of the evening. Overall though, Lord Bourne favoured viewing the result as a win in context rather than a win in and of itself. “We were wiped off the electoral map in Wales in 1997″, he reminded me, “so there has been a route march towards recovery, I think, from the turn of the century [and] 2015 was remarkable”.
Turning to the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections and the prospects of the Welsh Conservative party, Lord Bourne appeared cautiously optimistic. He argued, “the mood music in Wales is affected much more by what happens in Westminster” adding, “an effective Conservative government and an effective Prime Minister, which this Prime Minister certainly has been, is good for Wales. David Cameron plays well in Wales, he understands devolution…[and values] Wales as a strong part of the Union”. Focussing on the Welsh party more specifically, Lord Bourne stated that, “we need a coherent forward looking manifesto to map out how we are going to go forward [and] how we are going to seek to be part of a change of government”. He recalled how “the Welsh Assembly has never been tested by something that isn’t labour dominated, its either been labour on its own or a labour leading, and that’s not a good thing” arguing that the Welsh Tories would be “certainly…looking forward rather than just retaining what we’ve got” in order to attempt to break this Labour stranglehold on the Welsh Assembly and Welsh politics more generally.
Speaking of the Labour party, Lord Bourne identified what he referred to as a “Corbyn problem” for the Welsh Labour party. Raising the situation between Labour and Welsh Labour in the 2000s, the minister stated: “under Rhodri [Morgan, Welsh Labour leader 200-2009,] it was very much ‘we want clear red water between us in Wales and the labour party in England under Tony Blair/Gordon Brown because we are more left wing’. I imagine that won’t be the desire, I know it won’t be the desire, in 2016. It will be very much ‘we want clear blue water or lighter red water than in England’, but who can blame them really”. Indeed, the current Welsh Labour leader and First Minister for Wales, Carwyn Jones, has recently stated that the Welsh party will try to differentiate between themselves and the Corbyn-led party in England when campaigning on the doorsteps. However, the minister stated that he believes Welsh Labour “is more tightly tied in than we are” to their respective Westminster party, so the Corbyn leadership may play a part in hurting the Welsh Labour vote come the Assembly elections in May.
Concerning UKIP and the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the minister acknowledged the role they would play in the election but saw them as smaller players, on the whole. On UKIP he stated, “I was leader for three elections, in 2003, 2007 and 2011, and in each one I was that UKIP were going to make a breakthrough, they were going to win seats, and I never believed it and I was proved right in those three elections”. However, he acknowledge the new threat UKIP posed, especially given their somewhat meteoric rise in Wales from 2% in the 2010 general election to 14% in 2015, overtaking both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. He stated his belief that, “if UKIP are to win seats in the national assembly and I profoundly hope that they don’t because I think their message is damaging and negative and don’t help the UK or Wales…they are far more likely to win seats on the regional list by proportional representation than they are first past the post…Therefore the three opposition parties,…Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, and the Welsh Lib Dems, have a serious threat because…they have more list seats than the other parties, so if UKIP do pick them up they are going to be picking them up from them”. Turning to Plaid Cymru and the threat appeared far less real, with the minister arguing, “in Wales the vote for the nationalists barely moved a jot” in fact, he believed “they’ve gone backwards in terms of people wanting independence in Wales, it’s strange”.
Returning to the remarks the Cardiff North MP made on election night, Craig Williams also argued “why not?” to the prospect of a Welsh Conservative First Minister in the not-to-distant future. Once again, Lord Bourne was slightly more cautious in his response to the same question: “‘Why not?’ is a reasonable response, I mean at some stage there will be”. However, the minister did acknowledge “its probably a more realistic prospect now” and stated, in relation to the Assembly elections in 2016, “we are looking at winning seats first-past-the-post that we haven’t held before because of our strong performance in the general election” and surely that can only help our chances!
Therefore, in the build-up to the Assembly elections in May, given the Welsh Conservatives recent results in Wales and the current political landscape, I believe Lord Bourne’s approach of cautious optimism is one that we should all share.