Conservatism, Character and Constitution

Pressing the Reset Button

The COVID-19 crisis has changed us all. Not just how we live, but how we value, and how we think. It has been a crisis without compare and for those of us in positions of political leadership, it demands we assess things differently and learn lessons. The Reset Button had been pressed. The issue is not whether it has been pressed, but what that reset actually meant writes Welsh Conservative Leader Paul Davies.

Back in March my speech to fellow Welsh Conservatives gathered in Llangollen was the start of a planned mission to explain where the party is going in Wales under my leadership. The crisis meant that some of the plans I had for the last term had to be postponed until the time was more appropriate to move ahead with them.  In retrospect, I see the positives of waiting because Covid has shaped the way I think and the priorities that a Welsh Conservative Government should have from next May.

Over this weekend I have sought to set out, in both word and deed, some of the lessons which I have learnt as the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament during Covid. The reshuffle of my team on Friday was the best way of starting to set out priorities and themes moving forward.  The experiences of Covid-19 have reshaped the way many of us think about how government and public services should work. In making necessary changes to my Shadow Cabinet team, I have decided to be more radical in the approach we take. The delivery of reliable and responsive public services by front line professionals over the past four months has been remarkable, and I want the Welsh Conservatives to hard-wire creativity and reform into the way in which Wales is governed.

This rethinking of public service delivery was at the heart of my reshuffle. In making the changes necessary, I wanted to think creatively and not just move the team around in the normal and predictable way.  At the centre of the reshuffle is the appointment of Angela Burns as Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency. This new cross cutting brief will also see her head up a new shadow Office of Government Resilience and Efficiency. And this new Office’s main role is to ensure that the reset button actually delivers for people.

We will not be a business as usual Welsh Government, and we will not be a business as usual Shadow Cabinet. And I know that Angela won’t be business as usual either. Her wealth of political and business experience made her ideal for the role. Also, it’s precisely because Angela is leaving the Welsh Parliament next May that I appointed her.  She’s being given 10 months to come up with some radical thoughts, not confined by being the minister who has to implement them. I’ve asked her to harness over ten years experience in Cardiff Bay and focus it in just ten months. But I am not dictating the work of OGRE – it will be properly arms length and I trust Angela Burns to make it work. I know she’s capable of producing some coherent and radical outputs.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have realised OGRE is what I talked about in my conference speech as an Office of Administrative Responsibility. It’s basically the same idea with a different title and a slightly different focus. There’s a very good reason for that as the Covid outbreak happened since I made my speech. This has meant I have reassessed what is needed and mainstreamed Resilience as well as Efficiency. Resilience in public services is top of the agenda now. This is an example of my own Reset: I don’t just preach, I practice.

Do not underestimate this new OGRE – and yes, the name is deliberate because it needs to make the complacent and the business as usual brigade worried. Some people have suggested it’s just a gimmick and a title, but if this was spin or a gimmick, do you honestly believe I’d have been able to persuade Angela Burns to take the role? This is a serious job for a serious politician and the use of public resources, the mainstreaming of resilience and best practice, and the ending of waste will be absolutely central to what we say to the electorate between now and next May, and when we are in government.

When I think about running the Welsh Government, my ambition is not just to run the same sort of government we have now. It is to transform the whole operation so that delivery and improvement are hardwired into public servants. So that innovation is promoted and rolled out, not left in silos. So that entrenched patterns of working and thinking are challenged. And challenge is a vital part of the honest reappraisal that the delivery of government in Wales needs.

The respected journalist Adrian Masters has grasped the way in which this reshuffle is part of a sharper approach to the institutions of devolution. He correctly reminds readers of my conference speech in which I said I would end the “gravy train” of Welsh politics by freezing the budget of the Senedd Commission for five years, refuse to increase the number of politicians in Wales, introduce a freeze on hiring civil servants and refuse to introduce new taxes – and of course lower them where we can.

Adrian also spotted that I pledged to cut the size of Welsh Government in half to a “magnificent seven” ministers. I stand by that pledge. A Welsh Conservative Government will have seven ministers. We will be getting rid of the deputy ministers and reducing the size of government because it really doesn’t need to be so big. But, for now, all of my Conservative team in the Welsh Parliament will be on the front bench as we need all of our fire power to hold the Welsh Labour Government to account. We don’t have access to thousands of civil servants.

I have also learnt quite clearly that there is a real challenge for the Conservatives as the official opposition in the Welsh Parliament to get our voice heard. We don’t get the luxury of a daily press conference to be able to set out whatever issues we fancy talking about. In fact, we don’t get automatic coverage for anything. So, in typical Conservative style, it’s members themselves that are setting up alternative ways of talking to each other and sharing ideas. Conservative thinking is booming and blooming in all sorts of ways in Wales and it has happened naturally, not because the me or Boris or anyone else has demanded it occur. A new Conservative Members network has grown on Facebook. It is important that Conservatives can talk to other Conservatives free of the monosyllabic and mono-conceptual interventions of the cybernats. We have been bullied and marginalised for too long and I am delighted the reset button is being pressed by Conservative members themselves.

Similarly, this Gwydir blog is a fantastic example of what can be done when grassroots Conservatives take the lead. I’m delighted to write for you a second time today, and to pledge to write every month – if you’ll have me! But please make sure it’s not just me and other elected politicians writing. As you grow and mature, don’t lose sight of the energy and the ambition that was at the heart of this Gwydir project.

I’m pushing the Reset Button in how I communicate too, both in terms of the medium used and the type of messages shared. On Saturday I published my first online speech. This was not about announcing policies but about explaining a way of thinking and setting out priorities and themes for a Welsh Conservative Government. I don’t think political leaders do enough explaining. One of the things I respect about the late Rhodri Morgan was that he at least tried to explain the way his government would work when, almost twenty years ago, he talked about Clear Red Water. His approach was a rare example of a politician in the Bay Bubble talking about principles and theories, and to do so in a way that talks outside that Bay Bubble. Using different mediums means I can explain more and, hopefully, enthuse more and learn more too.

The Welsh Conservatives are on a mission to change Wales but it’s important to explain that change, to take the time to reflect and think but then to articulate that thought. That mission to explain is at the heart of the Reset that I am now offering to the wider Conservative Party in Wales. I was elected two years ago on a platform to listen to members, to colleagues and to concerns. People who know me know I am a good listener and I think carefully. The past few days – the reshuffle, the speech – have been the product of that listening and it’s now time to set out the fundamental changes that we need in Wales.

Covid has shown things can change in delivering public services in Wales. My whole team – from Angela Burns in her challenging new role in OGRE, to Darren Millar as Policy Director, to Andrew RT Davies as our rumbustious new Shadow Health Minister – are all intent on bringing a revolution to devolution in Wales. We are on a mission to end the sluggishness of government and make sure that revolution is one of pace, one of structure, and one of focus to actually deliver for the people of Wales.

Paul Davies is the Leader of the Conservatives and the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament.

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