Welsh Tory leader pledges to end 'Assembly gravy train' at party conference

The Welsh Conservative leader will pledge to shake up Welsh politics by "ending the Assembly gravy train" if his party wins power in next year's Assembly election.

Paul Davies AM is expected to tell the Welsh Tory conference in Llangollen that a government led by him would:

  • freeze the budget of the Assembly commission for five years

  • refuse to increase the number of Assembly members

  • reduce Welsh Government from 14 ministers to 7

  • introduce a freeze on hiring civil servants

  • refuse to introduce new taxes

In his speech the Tory leader is expected to draw a distinction between his approach and that of Welsh Labour which, he'll say, "now stands for a metropolitan elite."

This change of emphasis acts as something of a relaunch of Paul Davies' leadership and clearly aimed at trying to win over again those disgruntled Labour voters who backed Boris Johnson in last December's General Election.

Not just Labour voters either. There are some Welsh Tories who have never been won over by devolution and who see the existence of the Assembly as part of the problem. Anecdotally some members here in Wales are as tempted by the Abolish the Assembly party as they have been in recent years by the Brexit Party and UKIP.

To those the pledges of cost-cutting, politics-shrinking and other measures to increase the scrutiny and accountability of the Assembly may well be enough to keep them onside.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart will be at the conference in Llangollen. Credit: PA Images

More generally the party should be in good heart after Boris Johnson's clear General Election win. But at the same time serious questions remain about their ability to capitalise on that success and his decision-making since becoming Prime Minister.

The questions about Boris Johnson focus on two areas: the kind of government he's leading and how seriously he takes it.

The past week has seen him accused of overseeing a culture of bullying in his government with lurid stories surrounding the behaviour of senior advisers added to by criticism of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. He's sticking by her but those allegations are being investigated by the Cabinet Secretary.

And while the UK Government is acting to deal with the coronavirus there has been continued criticism of the Prime Minister for a lack of visibility in the early stages of the outbreak as well as a failure to visit any of the areas hit by flooding caused by Storms Dennis and Ciara.

As for the Welsh Conservatives, their focus is next year's Assembly elections. They're in an extremely strong position: a successful General Election saw them break into Labour's Welsh 'red wall' seats and a series of polls have shown that support hold up.

And yet there's disquiet. This last week alone I've spoken to two long-standing party members, campaigners who've stuck with the Tories through thick and thin. And they're leaving the party.

Their problems echo those of others.

They describe confusion about who's in charge: is it the elected Assembly group leader Paul Davies? The Welsh Secretary Simon Hart? The Prime Minister? Or the Welsh chairman, Lord Byron Davies?

That confusion is added to by what I'm told is a lack of communication between the different groups - those who run the party, the volunteers and the elected members.

Not only that but some local activists have reported to me what they describe as bullying or over-interference from the party centrally in selections both for last year's General Election and next year's Assembly election.

You can hear the frustration in Paul Davies' voice when he's tackled about who's in charge. He made clarifying the issue one of his main pledges during the leadership election and his frustration that it's not been resolved is all too evident.

Also not yet fully resolved are a number of serious problems: accusations against the Bridgend MP, Jamie Wallis, continued questions about the Ross England case and legal action by the AM Nick Ramsay who challenged his suspension by suing his group leader. The two men settled out of court but not without Mr Davies agreeing to pay £40,000 legal costs and a nominal £2 in damages.

The Welsh Conservatives have been here before: buoyed by General Election success which they then failed to build on.

But their prospects are good if they want them to be and if they aren't distracted by difficulties. But to do that they will need to deal with them.