Boris Johnson: Riding roughshod over devolution in Wales and turning red seats blue

Following Boris Johnson's announcement that he will resign as Prime Minister in the Autumn, Adrian Masters looks back on his relationship with Wales, helping turn Labour ‘red wall’ seats blue, and riding roughshod over the devolution settlement.

Boris Johnson always played up his connections with Wales which began when he stood as a candidate in Clwyd South in 1997.

He had a well-worn joke which went, “I fought Clwyd South and Clwyd South fought back” and liked to employ the few words of Welsh he’d picked up during that campaign.

He also didn’t forget those who helped him, staying in touch with supporters in the constituency long after he’d become London Mayor and, later, Foreign Secretary. 

When he spoke to the Welsh Conservative conference in March 2020, he began by saying, “Fantastic to be here in Llangollen. And of course it’s famously for me at least it’s the headquarters of a great campaign I ran I think 25 years ago.. which ended in spectacular defeat…”

I asked him how he felt about Clwyd South all those years later and he said, “It’s a beautiful place, wonderful … I flew over it just now coming in and I looked down at the river Dee and I remembered swimming in it 25 years ago. I can say I’ve swum in the Exe, I’ve swum in the Wye, I’ve swum in the sea and I’ve swum in the Dee.”

Mr Johnson meeting with ITV Wales' Political Editor, Adrian Masters in 2019.

That conference in 2020 took place with the pandemic already changing the way we were all living. 

But perhaps in a sign of the bullish attitude to come, he spent the conference shaking hands with people despite the advice being not to do so. 

Wales was important to him politically. It was widely considered that the former Labour ‘red wall’ seats in the north, like Wrexham and Vale of Clwyd as well as Bridgend in the south owed the fact that they turned blue in large part to his personal popularity. 

Much of that was because of Brexit and it’s certainly true that his message appealed to Welsh Labour voters as well as Conservatives who wanted to see Brexit sorted. Whether or not he managed that is still a matter of debate. 

Wales, too, became the focus of his approach to devolution, sometimes called ‘muscular unionism.’

He made the calculation that most voters don’t care which level of government delivers particular projects as long as things improve. 

It’s no longer even controversial to say that his government has ridden roughshod over the devolution settlement without apology. 

He repeatedly insisted to me that he would ensure an M4 relief road was built even though the Welsh Government, which has the decision-making power, had vetoed it.

Post-EU funding schemes have been deliberately designed to bypass the Welsh Government and his recent announcement of £1bn military aid to Ukraine included some funds raided from Welsh and Scottish Government budgets.

It was clearly a deliberate approach to take an aggressive approach to the devolution set-up, something which appeals to many within his party here in Wales but which could have longer-term implications. 

As a result he had a tricky relationship with the First Minister whom he called a “desiccated Corbynista” and who in turn called him simply “awful.

Mr Drakeford and Mr Johnson have not has the smoothest of working relationships.

Some other leaders have not made as many visits to Wales as he did, repeatedly appearing on election visits and government business. 

He was mobbed in Newport market, served ice creams on Barry Island, shifted pallets in factories, sat in a digger at a quarry in Penmaenmawr. 

Over the last year however, at nearly all of them, he faced difficult questions about his own judgement, the party-gate allegations, the Sue Gray inquiry which he often dealt with with humour or deflection. 

Even before he was Prime Minister at a leadership hustings event in Cardiff with his opponent, Jeremy Hunt, I challenged him about some comments he’d made about Welsh speakers. 

I’d said that people had taken it as an insult to Welsh-speaking communities. 

“No no no. Of course they didn’t,” he replied.

“They did,” I said.

And to gales of laughter from supporters he said, “Well no that’s because you’re winding them up” and walked off chuckling. 

Humour and deflection has often worked for him in difficult situations in the past. It seems now it works no longer.