Monday, 4 October 2010

Cuts and the Welsh Conservatives

The most thankless job in politics is to be a Leader of the Opposition. This is true at any level of government. Be it local government, national government or in the case of Wales's Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly. At its best it’s a job that may sometime in the future lead you to government, at its worst it’s a spectator sport. You’re an onlooker as someone else is getting on with the real deal of government. Governments set the agenda and  oppositions are shaped by this.
To be an opposition leader in Wales whilst your party holds the reigns of power in Westminster could in good times be a bonus. But these are not good times. So the opposition in Wales face a double whammy, they have to respond not only to the agenda of the government in Wales but are also affected by the agenda of the government in Westminster.
As David Cameron so bluntly but succinctly said to the Welsh conservatives at his party conference ‘don’t expect a good result in the polls in the Assembly elections.’ Why? Because of Mr Cameron’s own actions.
Putting on a brave face, poor Nick Bourne, Conservative leader and Leader of HM Opposition in the Welsh Assembly muttered that it was all in the national interest. Referring as he was to the public expenditure cuts that will shortly be visited upon Wales.
Cuts may or may not be in the UK national interest, economists are still debating the issue and the jury is still out. Clearly, even Kenneth Clarke has his doubts about the Chancellor’s policy when he expressed concern about a double dip recession in the Observer newspaper. Be that as it may, for certain the ‘national’ interest does not equate with the Welsh ‘national’ interest.
The Welsh economy requires a different approach to that required to deal with the often overheated economy of London and the South East. So when the Chancellor pursues a policy of public expenditure cuts his policy will have a disproportionate effect on Wales. The Welsh economy is highly dependent on the public sector for work because of the weak state of the private sector. Put another way, if thousands of civil servants, council workers, health workers etc loose their jobs they are unlikely to find the private sector offer them a life line. Cuts in Wales will mean high unemployment and sceptre of the brightest and best leaving in search of work, weakening further the fragile economy of the country.
Politically, it’s a no brainer.  Both of the opposition parties in the Assembly are likely be punished in next May’s election.  Ironically, they become scapegoats for decisions taken by their colleagues elsewhere down the M4; decisions on which they will have had little influence. So they are the fall guys and face the wrath of the electorate for the policy of others. C’est la vie, as the French would say.
However, they do have a safety net, the Welsh Assembly’s electoral system. The full anger of the voters is ameliorated by the regional list system which may compensate them in part for the seats that they are likely to loose in the constituency elections. Consequently, it is unlikely that either of the opposition parties in the Assembly will suffer a wipe out. But they will be weakened.
And there in lies the rub. If the Conservative party does loose ground and it would be a brave man that would not bet on that outcome. It won’t be Mr Cameron that will be blamed but Mr Bourne.
If Labour do particularly well they may even have a majority so that they can rule alone. Ieuan Wyn Jones may yet again become the Leader of the Opposition.  So where does that leave Nick Bourne, well theoretically where he has been for most of the life of the Assembly as leader of the Conservative group in Wales and the Welsh Conservative leader. But that is unlikely to happen. Why? The young Turks that surround him in the Conservative group in the Assembly will not hesitate to use their knifes and trigger an election. Unfair, yes, but who ever said that politics was ever fair?

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