Last week I kicked off our election campaign for the Senedd, says Andrew RT Davies in his keynote speech to the Welsh Conservative Party Conference.
We’ve outlined a plan for recovery.
One that will help our families, workers and businesses bounce back from the pandemic.
A set of aspirational pledges that form the core of our recovery plan for Wales.
It wasn’t the normal sort of election launch and over the next few weeks it won’t be the style of campaigning that we’re used to either.
It goes without saying, there’s been little that’s been predictable in the last year of politics here in Wales – and that goes for across the UK and beyond.
But life in general – and political life – are full of things we were not expecting.
Full of challenges for which people expect politicians to step up, delivering leadership to steer the ship through.
The coronavirus pandemic is of course the most serious one that has affected each and every one of us over the past year.
It’s been a bleak time for so many people – economically and socially.
And for some watching today it has brought the bleakest experience of all, as they’ve lost loves one too soon.
As the Welsh Conservative leader, I extend my heartfelt sympathies to all those who have paid the highest price during the most painful of years.
And I extend my thanks to everyone who has gone the extra mile to deal with those who have become infected by this unexpected challenge.
At the top of that list are our outstanding NHS staff and other health and social care professionals.
Thank you so much for all you have done and continue to do, creating those bridges of compassion between loved ones during the crisis.
We all agree the unexpected challenge of the last year has shown how clearly Wales and our communities are stronger when we are united.
And how our determination is stronger than we ever imagined to get this virus under control and get back to normal.
Over the course of the last 12 months, mistakes have been made by governments of all colours across the world.
In Wales, as a constructive opposition, we’ve agreed with Labour on the majority occasions to ensure we save lives.
But we’ve also call them out where necessary when we feel they have gone too far and not acting in the best interests of Wales.
Fighting political games, rather than the virus, such as the cruel five-mile rule, which was wrong and which we opposed vigorously.
But on ninety per cent of steps the Welsh Government took, we were fully in support.
We supported the Welsh Government measures 61 times, abstaining on 9 occasions, and voted against the six.
And when we voted – whether it was for, against or in deliberate abstention – we did so having considered the merits of the issue.
But sadly there has been occasions where we felt too much politics has come into play.
Where Labour decided to be different for being different’s sake.
And as the figures sadly show, it didn’t make Wales any safer or less susceptible to catching the virus.
And I’m pleased on occasions our calls have made a difference.
Remember all the policies we called for, Labour dismissed and then they implemented at a later date, such as shielding and increased business support.
Some came too late, some half-hearted, but Welsh Conservatives changed things for the better.
And we can do so again in May as we move out of the pandemic and onto the road to recovery.
A big part of the return to normality in Wales is the rollout of the vaccine programme.
I’m unstinting in my praise for the NHS, pharmacies, councils and thousands of volunteers for making this happen.
And beyond thankful that the vast bulk of the Welsh public are making sure they take the opportunity to get vaccinated.
And I am also grateful to my colleagues in the UK Conservative Government for sourcing and supplying the vaccine to enable this vaccination programme to go soaring ahead.
And I am extremely grateful that we had finally left the European Union by the time the vaccine came on stream.
Make no mistake about it, if Labour had their way we would be still locked into the disastrous Brussels vaccination programme right now.
Where the rate of vaccination in Wales and across the UK would be at such a diabolical level we’d be hearing the First Minister spinning about sprints and races…
While delaying the whole thing so that staff weren’t left twiddling their thumbs.
So while I congratulate the NHS in Wales for what they have achieved, let me also be clear that thank god we didn’t listen to Labour.
If Labour had had its way then we’d have been locked into the bureaucratic and ineffective European procurement.
At our time of need, this would have left our people and our nation horribly exposed…
With half the people who have been vaccinated today actually now sat at home unprotected, worrying about their protection against the virus, and the rest wondering when normality will ever return.
It’s a frightening thought, but thankfully the UK Government ignored Labour’s calls.
The vaccine is crucial in helping us get back the same level of freedom that we enjoyed before this pandemic.
Like many others, I don’t want to go back to the old normal, I’ve even learnt how to navigate a Zoom…but I certainly don’t want a new normal designed by the state.
I don’t want Labour’s version of recovery that means they try and foist their ideologies and their fetishes on us.
It’s why they don’t want to give Wales a detailed roadmap out of lockdown.
They love the power, they love the control. They believe the state knows best.
But if we’ve learnt anything over the last two decades, is that it fails to build a better Wales.
No ideas to give us confidence they can help Welsh families, workers and businesses to bounce back.
They don’t trust us – the people, the entrepreneurs, the businesses.
They always think government in Cardiff Bay knows best.
As they’ve showed when they’ve spent their time fixated on whether they could stop you buying children’s clothes or a new kettle in a supermarket, rather than tackling the virus.
And in that recent puff piece documentary for Labour, one Minister let the cat out of the bag.
Talking about easing the regulations imposed on our daily lives, she said “I think if you give an inch they will take a mile.”
In that one sentence she summed up Labour’s attitude: they just don’t trust you enough to keep yourselves and your families safe, or to keep to the rules.
Labour’s health minister has accused those of us who want a roadmap out of this lockdown nightmare as being “voices from the fringes”.
He should tell that to every grandparent in Wales who is wondering when they might be reunited with their grandkids.
Or every gym, pub or restaurant owner who just wants that window of opportunity to get their lives and their businesses back on track.
These people just want an indication of when, not a promise written in blood, a simple window of opportunity.
They just want the most precious thing of all during the last unexpected year – hope.
But Labour doesn’t want to give that to the Welsh public. They want a normal they can continue to regulate and control.
In short, Labour have enjoyed taking our freedoms away a little too much. They hang on to them a little too long.
They’ve grown a little too fond of hearing themselves pass judgement on normal people, normal lives, and the public’s desire to return to some sort of normality.
The First Minister and his cabinet see these lockdowns not as a pause to control a disease, but as the pushing of a reset button on society.
It’s not about dealing with a threat, it’s about Labour seizing the opportunity to change lives and behaviours to suit their own socialist visions.
Just because they don’t like foreign holidays, they don’t want people to have one either.
Just because they don’t like a pint, they want to keep our pubs and restaurants closed for as long as possible.
Just because they don’t like cars, they don’t want people driving. And just because they don’t like freedoms, they prefer to take ours away.
Just because people voted the wrong way to what Labour wanted and Wales backed Brexit, they did everything in their power to stop it happening.
Just because they can’t trust people to think like them, they’ll stop us making choices.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
We told Brussels to back off – now it’s time to tell Labour and Corbynite Drakeford to back off too.
And it’s time too to put an end to the other dangerous aspect of the Labour mindset.
The philosophy of putting their stamp on everything just for the sake of it.
Just because Wales can do things differently under devolution, shouldn’t mean the Welsh Government should always do things differently.
I don’t just believe in a joined-up approach across the UK for the sake of it, or from some abstract constitutional perspective.
Don’t worry I’m not going to go on and on and on about the constitution like some others but I will just say this.
Now is not the time for constitutional reform that will lead to chaos.
An independence or abolish referendum would be a distraction to the job in hand.
Rebuilding our economy, investing in our public services and creating the golden opportunities for the future which Wales can undoubtably enjoy.
Those two lecturers in Cardiff Bay, Messers Drakeford and Price, do not care about your job or your family, if it gives them the opportunity to play out ripping apart our United Kingdom.
I believe in a UK-wide approach and in our Union because it works.
And that’s what the Welsh people want.
Labour didn’t do it on Brexit, but they need to do it on the Union – listen to the people.
This time last year, people were much more responsible and kept to the rules when those rules were broadly the same in every part of the UK.
And it kept people safe.
People want a common framework of rules and they want a detailed roadmap out of lockdown.
And under the Welsh Conservatives you will get just that.
We will vaccinate Wales, protect our people, provide a roadmap out of lockdown and restore our freedoms as quickly as we can.
But this isn’t about coronavirus.
There is a far bigger challenge we need to tackle.
And we will be confronted by the biggest truth about Wales.
And it’s not one about which government runs the police force, or who decides the rules for Welsh Parliament elections, or which international student exchange gets used.
The biggest truth is this: Wales has a weak economy that has got weaker under 22 years of Labour.
The Welsh economy was in DECLINE before the pandemic hit.
At the start of 2020 GDP fell by 2.4% in Wales.
Before the pandemic, Wales had fewer people in work than the UK average.
The average workers’ weekly pay is more than £50 a week less than a worker in Scotland or England.
And businesses in Wales pay the highest rate of tax in Britain.
Ten Welsh towns are in the top 20 most economically vulnerable towns in the UK.
And a quarter of our population is living in some form of poverty.
Two decades of Labour has delivered nothing but poverty for our poorest communities and it has to change.
Covid hasn’t just shown our communities at their best, it has laid bare the deep rooted problems that exist in Wales thanks to the Labour Party.
Because for Labour and the economy, we’ve been in a hard and fast lockdown for the last year, following a slow and deliberate lockdown for the last two decades.
We have to change course, and turn the page.
And the Welsh Conservatives will kickstart the Welsh economy, not just to recover from the pandemic, but from two decades of Labour failures.
Our economic recovery plan for Wales will deliver more jobs, hope and security for everyone in Wales.
It will rebuild and rebalance our economy, so that we can level up across the whole of Wales with new technology and new investment.
Today, I can set out what that economic recovery plan means in practice.
We will set a minimum target to create 65,000 jobs in Wales over the next Parliament, with at least 15,000 green jobs
We will create “Innovate Wales” – a one stop shop for businesses which will support new businesses, and encourage existing businesses to grow and export.
This will involve bringing together the Development Bank of Wales, Business Wales and recreating the best aspects of the Welsh Development Agency.
We will deliver 100,000 new homes over the next 10 years.
We will deliver a tax cut for small businesses by scrapping business rates and look to reform the outdated tax on growth.
We will implement a Covid Bounce Back package, which includes the establishment of a £2.5 billion Rebuild Wales Investment Fund.
A sole focus on economic growth above all else, on job creation and business expansion, supported by the right physical and technological infrastructure.
In the same way that Wales showed that we can step up to the mark to tackle Covid, we need Wales to step up again to deliver the economic kickstart that our children and our country needs.
The message from the Welsh Conservatives is that we can make that happen.
From vaccines to VAT cuts, Boris has shown what a Conservative government can do.
And we will help the parts of the economy hardest hit by Covid and most abandoned by Labour to grow again.
My pledge to the tourism sector is this: a Welsh Conservative government will limit VAT to 5% for tourism businesses until April 2022 to help you get back on your feet.
But we want to go further.
We need to see more businesses in Wales take the next steps to grow.
We will kickstart that growth with our “Jump Start Scheme” which will pay the employer national insurance contributions for the first two staff that new microbusinesses in Wales hire for two years.
With a strong economy we will create more jobs, helping to fund our Welsh NHS and deliver first class schools.
Now let me predict the reaction to this economic ambition.
On social media there will be a rejection from all the usual suspects.
Quite frankly, so what.
They’ve admitted they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re right – we’ve seen it every day for the past 22 years.
And if we have made one big mistake during devolution it’s been pandering to these voices
The Welsh Conservatives are here to set out an alternative vision based on alternative values.
And that is why the cosy Bubble and the soggy centre left feel so threatened by the new energy of the Welsh Conservatives.
Their view of us is that we are only tolerable providing we oppose a Welsh Labour Government in a way that doesn’t rock the boat.
And that doesn’t challenge the central values Labour and their Plaid helpers have hard-wired into devolution.
They want us playing by their rules, on their terms, and to produce the sort of government that suits them and their establishment interests and agendas.
Those days are over.
As someone else once said when told to sell out their principles and their country – No, No, No.
And in order for us to get Wales to realise its own confidence again, as Welsh Conservatives we need to have confidence in ourselves.
I talked earlier about politics now being more unexpected than ever before.
Eighteen months ago, the pundits were predicting Boris Johnson would be the shortest lived UK Prime Minister in history.
And now look at us – the strongest working Conservative majority in Parliament since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
When I led this party into an Assembly election five years ago it was in a very different landscape to where we are now.
Five years ago, people told me Brexit would not happen.
It did – and we delivered it.
And now those same people are telling us Conservatives we can’t come out on top in Wales.
That there’s just not enough of us.
Well, I have some serious news for those people, especially the establishment academics and media types.
There are over half a million Conservative voters in Wales.
That’s more people than have ever voted Labour in an Assembly election.
We know that over 550,000 people voted Welsh Conservative in 2019.
We brought Labour’s red wall down two years ago, and we need to do it again.
And we’re the only opposition party that’s in a position to say that and actually be in a position to make a change here in Wales.
We are a force that can build a better Wales.
With more jobs, better hospitals and first class schools.
And as Conservatives we need to be vocal.
Vocal about the change we can bring.
Vocal that people support our plan.
Vocal that with your support we can win.
So tell your family, tell your friends, tell your neighbours.
We need every single person who voted for Boris and Brexit to back the Welsh Conservative plan for our recovery.
We kept on promise on Brexit, and we will do the same on our recovery from Covid.
Boris also banished Corbyn and we still need to extinguish the Corbyn flame in Wales embodied by the First Minister.
He was his principal cheerleader but you have the chance to finish the job and end the remnants of Corbyn for good.
The Welsh Conservatives can break Labour’s hold on Wales.
We can turn the page after 22 years of failure and broken promises.
We can end their waste, and make every precious penny and pound actually count.
We can stop the constant calls for more powers, and focus instead on delivery.
We can terminate their different for the sake of it mentality, and stop pandering to the obsessive separatists.
We can stop their unnecessary controls, and restore our freedoms.
We can change our country for the better.
Together, let’s build a better Wales.
Andrew RT Davies is the Leader of the Welsh Conservative Senedd Group and the Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central.