Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Power Struggle

The last ten days has witnessed tensions within the two main unionist parties which will have repercussions for years to come.

Two sleepy Westminster institutions, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, both thought past their useful life, suddenly came alive and set in chain a series of events which caused great discomfort in Cardiff Bay.

A seemingly casual put down by the Welsh Secretary, and an incendiary speech by his shadow, lit a long fuse which caused consternation in Cathays Park, and set off a bomb in the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly. But while it is possible to see these events through the prism of personalities and rivalries, both are about far more - the question of where political power in Wales resides?

It was Owen Smith’s speech that commanded the most attention initially.  Labour’s Shadow Welsh Secretary said the offer of income tax raising powers for the Welsh Government was ‘a trap’.  Pro-devolution Conservatives were quick to try and make political capital with their claim that he had ‘completely demolished the Silk Commission recommendations.  In practice, Owen Smith, was largely repeating his party’s ambivalence to a power they hadn’t asked for and a referendum they didn’t think could be won. The real kick came in an essay Smith wrote for the IWA a few days later. In it Smith went beyond his previous arguments that support for broader tax devolution was conditional on putting in place fairer funding for Wales.  He warned that the recommendations of the Silk Commission threatened the unraveling of the Union:  “What is a Union if not, at base, an economic and social alliance through the pooling of risk and the sharing of rewards?”, he wrote.

Carwyn Jones has been disciplined in his response.  Though he had no intentions of triggering income tax powers, he will resent having his negotiating position dictated by a Shadow Minister in Westminster.  But by putting his case in such fundamental terms, and ruling out income tax powers for the Assembly in the near future, Owen Smith has caused significant damage to the First Minister’s attempts to negotiate increased borrowing levels.  The intervention also sets the tone for discussions between the First Minister and Ed Milliband on the inclusion of other parts of the Silk Commission report in the next Labour manifesto.

Even though Carwyn Jones is Labour’s most senior politician in the UK to exercise power, he doesn’t have a free hand to decide his party’s devolution policy. Power devolved remains power retained.  After all it was a Westminster Government who set-up the Silk Commission, and MPs are keen to remind AMs that they remain the arbiters of the constitution.

It's a message the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, has been privately relaying to the Conservative leader in the Assembly for some time.  Andrew RT Davies has been resisting, and last week paid the price.
After sacking his leadership rival Nick Ramsay, and three other Shadow Cabinet members for defying a three line whip, he had to face reports that he is now “completely isolated” and was subjected to “100% universal criticism” from his party’s Welsh board.  Cardiff Bay insider Daran Hill judged it to be an epic blunder – the wrong issue, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

The announcement of the sackings by Twitter wrong-footed the commetariat, who did not seem to see it coming, and in the fog war they chose to focus on a process story rather than the power story.  But as the tale unfolded the power struggle at the heart of the episode has become clearer.

In a deeply revealing interview on Radio Wales’s Sunday Supplement programme Andrew RT Davies acknowledged that people within his party have been trying to undermine his leadership since he was narrowly elected two and half years ago.  He said "There have been so-called texts, source briefings - no-one putting their name, but source briefings - and situations orchestrated that obviously make life a little awkward shall we say... within the party”.

Strong supporters of his, the programme host Vaughan Roderick put to him, had suggested that it is the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, who was behind attempts to destabilise him.  Andrew RT Davies didn’t demur, and noted, pointedly, “I and David Cameron are the only two people who have been voted on by the membership”.

Mr Jones sees himself as the legitimate leader of the Conservatives in Wales – a tension that has been familiar feature within both Labour and the Tories since 1999. And the Welsh Secretary has not been terribly subtle about his attempts to pressurize Davies into taking his lead from the Westminster leadership.

The struggle for dominance took on a more substantive dimension over the response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission.  David Jones has little patience with the view of all the Welsh party leaders that the income tax powers he’s proposing to devolve are unusable in their present form. They would want the flexibility to vary the three bands of income tax independently from one another. But the Treasury won’t wear it, and David Jones has been trying to get Andrew RT to sign up to a policy of cutting all tax bands by 0.5%. He thinks it is affordable and would be a vote winner for the Welsh Tories. Davies would prefer the flexibility to target tax cuts at individual income bands, most likely a cut in the top rate of tax to encourage high earners to move to Wales.

Far from being an academic distinction it is live political question at Westminster as David Jones has to pilot a draft Bill through the Commons to enact the power.  It is more difficult for him to swat opposition attempts to change the Bill when amongst their number is the ‘Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly’ (to give him his official title).  But instead of an elegant side-step the Welsh Secretary dismissed Davies’ evidence as a mere ‘personal view’.  Andrew RT rose to the bait and quickly issued a statement which made clear he was speaking on behalf of “the entire membership of the Welsh Conservative group in the National Assembly”.

But it seems he wasn’t.

Five members of the increasingly fractious Assembly group favoured supporting David Jones’ position (Byron Davies was, fortuitously, absent on the day of the vote and therefore spared the choice of following his instincts).  The internal dynamics are complex with elements of ideology, ego, opportunity, positioning and personal friendship at play.  But against the backdrop of a challenge to his authority from both the Welsh Secretary and his internal opponents, Andrew RT decided to make a (largely insignificant) vote a loyalty test.

Just as David Jones could have finessed the difference of view when he went before the Welsh Select Committee, Andrew RT Davies could have avoided a breech with his band of rebels over the vote in the Assembly.  But having decided to issue a three-line whip he could not have ignored the direct challenge to his authority.

On this site one of the rebels, Antoinette Sandbach, commented  “Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group”.  Quite so. That was the point.

This crisis is not just a challenge to his leadership – though it clearly is – it represents an existential crisis for the Welsh Conservatives.

The political project begun by Nick Bourne of tackling the perception that the Conservatives are an ‘English’ party in Wales was, perhaps unexpectedly, taken up by Andrew RT Davies.  David Jones challenged that agenda when he was the junior Wales Office Minister under Cheryl Gillan and continues to do so now he sits around the Cabinet table.

Not all the rebels have the same motivation, but the outcome of their actions will be the same if they press their point.  The consequences of pushing Andrew RT Davies out do not appear to have been thought through, and would reverse the progress made by the party in the last ten years.
This story is far more significant than was first reported.  And it fits into a wider picture of MPs, worried about the momentum of the SNP, pushing back against the tide of devolution.

We are living through an extraordinarily fluid period of politics and it is impossible to discern how this story will play out.  But let’s be in no doubt about the forces at play, and the stakes they are playing for.

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