Bluer-sky Thinking

The Conservative party’s faith in pragmatism has allowed it to endure as one the preeminent election-winning forces in western democracy.

It has adapted to universal suffrage, the rise of the middle classes and the loss of empire, and is now in the process of working out how to flourish in a devolved Britain.

The party opposed the creation of the National Assembly but fierce opponents of devolution found a political home in Cardiff Bay. Nick Bourne came to national prominence as a No campaigner in the 1997 referendum yet he is now the longest-serving party leader in the Assembly and an advocate for the institution gaining full law-making powers.

This is one more example of the Conservatives’ Darwinian instinct to adapt and survive allowing the party to thrive in a new environment.

The 13-strong Tory group has also benefited from the proportional voting system in the Assembly. The Tories finished second in Wales in 1997 and 2001 elections yet failed to send a single MP to Westminster; devolution has given the party the resources, the exposure and a need to develop a distinct Welsh identity.

But the Conservatives do not want to exist as a natural party of opposition. Even the least ambitious AM will tire of being weekly out-voted in the Senedd.

The party has reached a fascinating moment in its far-from-finished journey of evolution in Wales. If there is a Yes vote in the March referendum and a Labour-led Assembly Government returns in May with a team of ministers who have new freedom to make laws, pressure will intensify on the Tories to chart their route to power.

The grassroots may have little instinctive love for devolution but a party that won 26.1% of the vote last May will not tolerate a future in which the Labour leader is the de facto First Minister.

However, there are close to zero signs of a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance commanding a majority in the Assembly in the near-future, and Plaid Cymru’s left-wing identity has become more pronounced since 2007.

In such unpromising circumstances, Conservatives who want to challenge Labour’s hegemonic position may become quietly convinced that the Assembly needs an even more representative election system in which 40 of the 60 seats are no longer determined by first-past-the-post.

The 2004 Richard Commission called for an 80 member Assembly based on the Single Transferable Vote – and many icons of the Welsh rallied to lobby for this through Tomorrow’s Wales.

A gear change is required for Conservatives to shift from adapting to reform to driving it forward, but the party of Disraeli will not want to be stuck in a rut.

A Thursday column