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From Brexit to independence: What's next for Wales?

Credit: ITV Wales/PA Images

I could tell the way things were going when, in the last week of the election campaign, it became clear that the Conservatives were ahead in Ynys Môn and nervously confident in Newport West.

Two very different seats that in their different ways told me the sort of movement that was going on.

If voters on Anglesey were ignoring the selection problems of the Conservatives and criticism of the candidate from other parties, where else would they be ignoring such issues?

And although the Tories didn’t win Newport West, the fact that they were actually worried about saying they were close suggested to me they were picking up some serious switching in places that would make a difference.

When I used the ‘landslide’ word in conversations with senior Conservatives, they looked panicked and played it down.

It may not have been a landslide, but it was a success. Boris Johnson has the parliamentary majority to get his Brexit deal through the commons and to press ahead with his plan to leave the European Union on the terms of his deal.

That’s now a given, but he and his party have a bigger task. They won over Labour voters this time in a very specific set of circumstances. Once Brexit has become a reality and Jeremy Corbyn has gone as Labour leader, there’s no guarantee that those who gave him the benefit of the doubt last night will do so again.

How will he persuade them to stick with the Conservatives in the future?

All eyes will now be on Sajid Javid’s first budget. Based on what his party promised, here are some commitments to Wales that I will be expecting to see action on or an explanation as to why they haven’t happened.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the Conservative Party Welsh manifesto in Wrexham in November. Credit: PA Images

EU funds to match levels already spent in Wales

The Conservative manifesto gave details of the very long-awaited UK Shared Prosperity Fund designed to replace EU aid currently received by Wales.

The UK manifesto promised ‘at a minimum [to] match the size of EU funds in each nation,' while the Welsh document clearly stated that ‘Wales will receive at least the same level of financial support as it currently receives from the EU.’

That’s currently £295m a year in structural funding and £274m a year in payments to farmers.

A free port in Wales

Each nation of the UK was promised a free port with different tax and tariff rules to encourage trade. The manifesto commits to one in Wales.

The Marches Growth Deal

This is a pledge to plough money into improving the cross-border infrastructure in parts of mid-Wales and the bordering areas of England.

The First Minister scrapped plans for an M4 relief road in June. Credit: PA Images

Road and rail

Controversially, the UK manifesto explicitly states that ‘we will upgrade the A55’ and ‘ensure the delivery of an M4 relief road.’

Responsibility for both roads in Wales are devolved, so unless the new UK government intends to compel the Welsh Government to act then the reality will mean little more than demonstrating that it’s given ministers in Cardiff the resources needed and, in the case of the A55, carrying out improvements on the English stretch.

The Conservative manifesto also promises to ‘fund the building of the West Wales Parkway [railway] station.’

Health and education

Both are devolved and in both areas the Conservatives promised to spend significantly more money, and for that to mean increased resources for the Welsh Government to follow suit or not.

There are rumours that there may not be a Welsh Secretary after Alun Cairns resigned from the role. Credit: PA Images

Political changes

A reshuffle, probably on Monday, which may or may not see a new Welsh Secretary appointed.

Alun Cairns is still the subject of a civil service investigation into whether or not he broke the ministerial code.

Whatever the result, that won’t answer many of the criticisms levelled at him. There’ll be a very loud outcry if he’s reappointed and every time he speaks in public or is interviewed he’ll face those difficult questions.

There are rumours that there may not be a Welsh Secretary, and that Boris Johnson may take the opportunity to merge the departments of the nations into a big Department of the Union, led by a heavy-hitter such as Michael Gove and supported by ministers for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who’d sit below cabinet level.

Since devolution in 1997, there’s always been a certain logic to such a merger, and Tony Blair tried (and failed) to do just that. Expect strong objections if it were to happen.

The road to 2021

All parties in Wales will now turn their attention to the Assembly election in 2021.

The Welsh Conservatives know that their campaign suffered some serious problems, some of their own making, some not. They also know that this General Election result was due to a specific set of circumstances and virtually nothing to do with Welsh issues or rather devolved issues. How they translate success this week into success in 18 months is what their task will be.

The First Minister admitted 'some responsibility' over Labour's election performance in Wales.

Labour at a UK and Welsh level now has to undergo a time of soul-searching, as well as choosing a new leader. That’s going to be painful and risks tearing apart an already fragile party. The left-right divide is only going to deepen with different strands of the party determined to keep hold of or take back control.

Here in Wales, Mark Drakeford’s Labour has a choice whether or not to continue sticking to the Corbynite project which he clearly believes in or to re-emphasise Welsh Labour’s distinct identity and difference.

As an adviser to Rhodri Morgan, he coined the phrase ‘Clear Red Water’ to summarise that position. Many within the Welsh party, both critics and supporters, tell me he’s much more committed to that than sometimes appears. He may have to open the clear red water sluice-gates in the months leading up to the Assembly election.

The Lib Dems lost their Brecon and Radnorshire seat to the Conservatives by a majority of more than 7,000.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats may well have to choose a new leader although they don’t appear to be in a great rush. The party in Wales changed its rules after the previous wipeout, so that non-MPs or AMs could be leader and Jane Dodds wasn’t an MP when she was elected to the post. I‘m told there’s not a great desire among members for a new leader which suggests it will be up to her if she feels she can carry on.

Thousands marched for Welsh independence in September.

Indycurious?

Alongside all of this, I expect to see tensions over the union of the United Kingdom increase.

Scotland’s First Minister has made it clear she’ll move quickly to put the legal case for a new independence referendum there. She can certainly argue that she has the political mandate to hold one just as Boris Johnson can argue that the result gives him a mandate to leave the EU on the basis of his deal.

That doesn’t mean he won't resist demands though. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him refuse and the Scottish Parliament push forward with a referendum of its own which could lead to a Catalonia-style standoff and the risk of unrest that could bring.

What I think that could mean for Wales is increased support for independence here. In the 1980s and 1990s support for devolution grew, in part, in response to majority Conservative governments.

Well, devolution is a reality and has been for 20 years. Any calls for greater autonomy based on political frustration only really has independence into which to be channelled.

I predict Welsh Labour figures move towards being ‘indycurious’, and if Scotland votes to leave, I’d expect the calls to become howls.