Welsh Conservatives leader distances himself from Boris Johnson's 'devolution a disaster' comments

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has distanced himself from Boris Johnson’s reported comments about the way that power is distributed across the UK.

The Prime Minister has been widely criticised for what he said in a conference call with Tory MPs, reportedly describing  devolution  as ”a disaster north of the border" [i.e. in Scotland] and that it had been "Tony Blair's biggest mistake.”

Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies MS said the "Welsh Labour-led Governments have been a disaster for devolution in Wales." Credit: PA

Paul Davies, who leads the Conservatives in the Senedd, said that “devolution hasn't been a disaster” but rather that the disaster was more than twenty years of Welsh governments led by Labour.

However, a Welsh Government minister said the comments show that “this Conservative government is not remotely interested in respecting the devolution settlements across the UK”.

Plaid Cymru’s leader compared the Prime Minister to Donald Trump.

The call between the Prime Minister and MPs who represent constituencies in northern England and the north of Wales took place on Monday as part of Mr Johnson’s efforts to unite the party after bitter in-fighting inside Downing Street which culminated in the departure of his chief aide, Dominic Cummings.

Number 10 has not denied that he made the comments he is reported to have said but has attempted to clarify his position:

"The PM has always supported devolution but Tony Blair failed to foresee the rise of separatists in Scotland," a UK government spokesperson said.

"And leaving the EU means we must strengthen and protect the UK economy with the UK Internal Market Bill. Devolution is great - but not when it's used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK."

Here in Wales, Paul Davies moved quickly to state his position:

"Devolution hasn't been a disaster. Twenty plus years of Welsh Labour-led Governments have been a disaster for devolution in Wales. The people of Wales deserve better." 

"Instead of doing their job in ensuring our economy and health and education services are the best they can be, the Welsh Government has been obsessed with arguing about more powers."

However, First Minister Mark Drakeford said devolution in Wales has been able to "thrive" under a Welsh Labour government.

He said: "The Senedd exists not because of the failure of the Boris Johnson government, but because of the success of a Labour government in making devolution happen in the first place.

"Devolution thrives when there is a Labour government to support it, and devolution comes under the sorts of pressures that it is now under when we have a Conservative government, and where you scratch the surface of the Conservative Party and all its old hostility to devolution rises back to the surface."

"That's what happened yesterday when the Prime Minister thought that he could show off in front of a few Conservative MPs from the north of England," Mr Drakeford added.

Counsel General Jeremy Miles criticised Boris Johnson's comments as “shocking but not surprising.” Credit: PA

In a tweet, the Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said:

“Boris Johnson calling the devolved governments a disaster in the middle of this pandemic is a bit like Donald Trump accusing Joe Biden of being a danger to democracy."

"Our “biggest mistake” is not leaving the Union sooner so we’re saddled with you as PM - for now, but not for long,” Mr Price said.

Meanwhile, Neil Hamilton MS, UKIP's acting leader called devolution a “constitutional virus which is killing the UK”.

He said: “Boris is right – devolution is a disaster for Scotland and the UK. But, the Welsh and Scottish Conservatives are too spineless to do anything about it."

Even though Number 10 has sought to clarify these remarks which were anyway aimed at Scotland, they could still cause the Conservatives a problem here in Wales where all parties are already fighting an election campaign which is less than six months away.

It plays into the perception, which its opponents are happy to encourage, that the Conservative party is not just keen to strengthen the union and to resist Scottish independence but is also downright hostile to devolution. 

A perception that holds some truth: a big chunk of the party’s membership in Wales as well as in England has never come to terms with the existence of parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Electorally though, the Welsh Conservatives have a complicated relationship with devolution.

Over the course of the two decades since devolution, some MPs argued for more powers to counter nationalism and to, as they saw it, make Welsh Governments more accountable particularly when it came to spending taxpayers’ money. 

The tone of that, if not the substance, has changed.

Paul Davies and his top team have taken an increasingly deco-sceptic approach with promises to cut back the size of the cabinet, the numbers of civil servants, defund organisations which rely on Welsh Government funding and stop pursuing policies that they claim are different for difference’s sake. 

That has combined with a newly emboldened aggressive unionism in the UK Government.

The UK Internal Market Bill is meant to provide a level playing field for businesses in all parts of these islands but even its own explanatory notes admit that it places new limits on devolution. 

Earlier this year, Boris Johnson told ITV News he will try to 'take forward' a plan for an M4 relief road Credit: PA

There have also been repeated pledges by the Prime Minister and other ministers to build an M4 relief road even though they don’t have the powers and an elected Welsh Government has decided against it. 

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, due to be announced in the next week or so, will almost certainly give UK ministers power to develop big projects in devolved areas. Even if that will still mean they won’t be able to build a new stretch of M4, they’re certainly going to try. 

This approach is deliberate. Senior Conservatives have for a long time felt that their UK Governments have tended to “devolve and forget” and that the best way to counter Scottish nationalism is to trumpet more the benefits of big decisions being made for the whole of the UK.

That makes sense to many in the party, particularly but not exclusively those at Westminster. 

But it’s a risky strategy. Far from discouraging support for independence in Scotland, polls show that holding firm or even increasing. If the SNP increases its support next May, an almighty battle looms over holding a new referendum. 

Here in Wales polls continue to show a majority supporting the current devolution settlement or more powers for the Welsh Government.

The First Minister’s approval rating for his handling of the pandemic continues to be high as is his profile and the awareness of devolution.

The pro-independence group Yes Cymru is now regularly reporting increases in membership. Credit: ITV Wales

The pro-independence group Yes Cymru is now regularly reporting increases in membership and on the other side of the debate, the anti-devolution party Abolish the Welsh Assembly has seen its poll support rise. 

So while the Conservatives’ aggressive unionism could enable it to strengthen support in Wales by showing the benefits of the UK working as one it could just as easily backfire by increasing support for pro-devolution and pro-independence parties and losing the votes of pro-devolution Tories while deco-sceptics go all the way and vote Abolish.

That’s why, no matter how much these apparently throwaway comments by the Prime Minister matter so much, even if they’re repeatedly clarified and put into context.

They play directly into a difference over devolution which has always been there but which has been widened by Brexit, covid and will, I predict, become the defining divide of next year and which after that could change the way the UK is organised forever.