Theresa May's speech to Welsh Conservative Conference
Alun, thank you for that introduction. And thank you all for that warm welcome.It is always a pleasure to be with the Welsh Conservatives.You represent the best of our Party: a love of country, a commitment to public service and a determination to build a better future for the people we serve. Wales is place of great beauty, rich history, and huge potential for the future. You all know I’m no stranger to this part of the world – but don’t worry, I haven’t brought my walking boots with me this time. Normally the Party leader comes to Welsh Conference to rally the troops ahead of an election. But this year it’s different. For the first time in five years, there have been no national elections in Wales. That makes this a conference when we can really take stock. We can think about what make us strong as a party and a country, and how we can build on those strengths in the years ahead.
As Welsh Conservatives, you have a lot to be proud of. In the local elections last year, you fielded a record slate of candidates. You went on to achieve your best ever results – gaining 80 new councillors. We took control of the councils in Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan – and it is great to have both leaders, Peter Fox and John Thomas here today. Two more local areas where people will benefit from the lower taxes and better services that Conservative councils provide. Scores of new councillors, champions for their local areas, building our party’s strength and credibility right across Wales. And just a few weeks after those local elections, we had the general election. On that night we achieved our highest general election vote share in Wales since 1935. You won over half a million votes – more than ever before. And our vote-share went up in 39 out of 40 Welsh seats. You can all take pride in these achievements. But sadly we know that this big increase in support did not translate into more seats. And indeed we lost some valued colleagues in the House of Commons. Byron, Craig and James - we miss you at Westminster. But I know you all still have a tremendous contribution to make. James continues to serve his community as a GP. And Byron and Craig are putting their talents at the service of the Party here in Wales. Craig as our Political Director. Byron as our Chairman. And let me just say something in particular about Byron Davies. Here is a man who served his country with honour as a police officer….…who served his community as an assembly member and then as an MP. Yet in the general election last year he was subject to malicious false accusations, spread online. The person responsible for those smears has admitted they were bogus, has publically apologised, and donated a substantial sum to charity in damages. But sadly only after the votes had been cast. Byron had right on his side. He stood up for his good name. And he has sent a message that should be heard the length and breadth of our country: that lies and smears have no place in our democracy.
In the National Assembly, the formidable Andrew RT Davies and his brilliant AMs are holding the Labour Government to account……and showing Plaid Cymru what a real opposition looks like. As you have heard this week, Andrew and his team are setting out new policies to improve the lives of people in Wales - launching a new strategy for urban renewal. From the countryside to the inner cities – it is Welsh Conservatives who have fresh ideas and a vision for stronger Wales. And every corner of Wales has had a strong and respected voice in the European Parliament for the last nine years in Kay Swinburne. Kay, as you near the end of your time as an MEP, thank you for everything you’ve done for our party and for Wales. And at Westminster, Wales has another redoubtable champion. Given his recent achievement of running the London marathon in a very creditable 3 hours and 56, I’m tempted to say that he runs rings around the opposition. But I am absolutely serious when I say that Alun Cairns is passionate about improving the lives of the people of Wales. Alun works with colleagues across Whitehall as Secretary of State to get the very best deal for Wales. He stands in a distinguished line of Conservative Secretaries of State for Wales. We were all saddened earlier this year by the passing of Nicholas Edwards, Lord Crickhowell, who served in that role with such distinction. He achieved a lot for Wales and his legacy lives on. So I am proud to stand with the Welsh Conservatives today. I am proud of your achievements – from the town hall and National Assembly, to the Cabinet table. And I am proud to lead a Conservative Government that is delivering for Wales.
We are investing in Wales’s future, through our City Deals programme. In the Cardiff capital region, we are helping to unlock the potential of a great city. The deal is investing in Cardiff’s strengths, like its semiconductor industry, which is a European leader, and is supported by half a billion pounds of UK Government investment. Last year I signed the Swansea Bay region deal, which is helping communities in this part of Wales compete with the world’s best digital technology centres. It could create thousands of new jobs, boost digital infrastructure and promote local strengths like life sciences, smart manufacturing and steel. And these two deals are only the start. We are also working with local councils and the Welsh Government to develop growth deals in North Wales and Mid-Wales too. So that all parts of Wales will have the chance to benefit from new investment and new thinking.
City Deals show what we can achieve when government steps up to its role as an active participant in the economic life of our country. And that is exactly what we are doing through our modern Industrial Strategy. Strengthening the foundations of our economy so we can tackle the challenges of the future. Helping all parts of the UK benefit from prosperity and growth, and every community access more and better-paid jobs……especially those places across our United Kingdom that have been locked-out of economic prosperity for too long. As a Party that believes in One Nation – that we are all diminished if any part of us is held back – it is our patriotic duty to do so. Because the biggest gap in regional GDP within any EU member state is not to be found in southern Europe or in the countries of the old Soviet bloc. It is within our United Kingdom – in the gap between central London and right here in West Wales. I am determined that ours should be the generation that shrinks that gap, by helping every community in our country to enjoy economic opportunity through our modern Industrial Strategy. And when we leave the EU, and take back control of our money, we can replace the ineffective EU structural funds with better targeted support for local areas. So to reduce inequalities between communities across the four nations of our United Kingdom, we will launch a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, tailored to the needs of communities. Throughout the development of the modern Industrial Strategy, we have worked closely with the Welsh Government. And we will continue to do so. Because we cannot let lines on a map or political differences between governments stop us from acting in the best interests of our economy. One of our greatest strengths as a Union is the wholly integrated domestic market for businesses that means no barriers to trade within our borders. Half the Welsh population lives within 25 miles of the border, and millions of people cross that border in the course of their businesses every year. If you live in Wrexham, Rhyl or Llandudno then Chester, Liverpool and Manchester mean more to your local economy than Cardiff or Swansea. North Wales is a key element of the Northern Powerhouse. And Alun has identified and will realise the potential for a ‘Western Powerhouse’ that brings the economies of south Wales and the south west of England – Cardiff, Newport and Bristol – closer together. One barrier to that closer economic relationship has always been the mighty Severn estuary and the tolls which travellers have to pay to cross it. It was a Conservative government that started construction of the first Severn Bridge, in 1961. A Conservative government built the second Severn crossing in 1996. And a Conservative government has already cut the tolls people have to pay to cross them. This year a Conservative government will go a step further and scrap the tolls completely. It will be a £100 million boost to the south Wales economy. It means money in the pockets of workers and businesses and a barrier to trade and travel within our United Kingdom eliminated for good. Conservatives bringing England and Wales closer together – and strengthening our Union of nations.
Our modern Industrial Strategy has UK-wide ambitions. Its focus is to ensure that the whole UK can benefit from economic growth – not just London and the south east of England. You see that in our support of the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine. And you see it too in our commitment to the economies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Because the United Kingdom is not a loose federation of semi-detached units. We are one strong Union of nations and people. And an unswerving faith in that Union has always been one of the hallmarks of our Conservative and Unionist Party. We believe in our United Kingdom head, heart and soul. And we should never take for granted the benefits it brings to each one of us. As Unionists, we should never stop making the case for why standing together as one United Kingdom is in all of our best interests. Our Union makes us safer. As a United Kingdom, we are able to maintain the biggest defence spending in Europe, play a leading role in NATO, and use our permanent seat on the UN Security Council to reinforce the rules-based international system. Neither England, nor Wales – nor Scotland or Northern Ireland – could do these things alone. Brave men and women from every corner of Wales help defend the United Kingdom today, as they have for generations, as part of our armed forces. And Wales is home to thousands of our servicemen and women from around the UK.World-class training for our fighter pilots at RAF Valley on Anglesey. Our infantry at the Brecon Infantry Battle School. Our ground engineering technicians at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan. And our electronic warfare specialists at Cawdor Barracks in Pembrokeshire. As I speak to you today, 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh are leading the British Battlegroup as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia.The whole world is safer because of the role the United Kingdom plays on the world stage……and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the brave men and women in Wales and around the UK who put their lives on the line to serve our country. And our Union makes us more prosperous too. A shared national currency and central bank gives stability to our whole economy. Every small business and every worker is better protected because of the broad shoulders of the world’s fifth-largest economy. And our wholly integrated domestic UK market accounts for 80% of Welsh trade. When we have left the EU Customs Union, the size and scale of the United Kingdom’s economy will allow us to strike the best trade deals around the world. And I am determined that Wales will benefit from the new markets we will open up. The security and economic prosperity our Union affords us are compelling arguments in its favour. But at its heart, the Union which we care about so much is not a transactional arrangement, built on expediency. It is a union of people – of affections and loyalties. It is characterised by sharing together, as one country of four nations, the challenges we all face, and freely pooling our resources to tackle them together. Our National Health Service – created by a Welshman – is a symbol of our solidarity across the UK. And in its 70th anniversary year we are guaranteeing it for generations to come by setting out a long-term plan for its future. At the heart of the United Kingdom is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles that transcends politics and institutions, the constitution and the economy. This social union is the glue which holds us together.
What unites us in the UK is the fundamental strength that comes from being one people. Just like the UK as a whole, Wales voted for Brexit – and Conservatives are implementing that decision. We are building a new relationship with the EU which makes us close trading partners and strong allies……but in which we make our own laws, manage our own immigration policy and decide ourselves how taxpayer money is spent. That is what people in Wales voted for and that is what I am determined to deliver. But when people in Wales voted for Brexit, they were not voting to weaken our Union. Brexit will mean more power in the hands of the devolved administrations. And the steps we have taken in the Withdrawal Bill to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s common market, will ensure that Brexit does not create new barriers to doing business across our United Kingdom. Those steps led initially to a disagreement with the Welsh Government. But we worked hard, negotiated, and we reached agreement. This week the National Assembly voted to give its consent to the Withdrawal Bill – and I welcome that. The only Party in the Senedd to oppose the consent motion was the only party in the Senedd that opposes the existence of the United Kingdom – Plaid Cymru. And the only First Minister in the UK who still opposes the Withdrawal Bill is the only First Minister who wants to break up the United Kingdom – Nicola Sturgeon. So now we see can it clearly – if you believe in the integrity, the value and the future of our United Kingdom, you support the sensible measures in the Withdrawal Bill. And if you don’t – you won’t. It’s as simple as that.
Since 2010, Conservatives have demonstrated beyond question our commitment to devolution in Wales through successive acts of Parliament. Thanks to Conservatives, the Welsh Assembly now has primary law-making powers, and from next year will have tax-varying powers. The Assembly and Welsh Government are more powerful and more accountable to the people of Wales because of Conservative policies. The idea that we would use Brexit as way of rowing back on these landmark changes was always ludicrous. Conservatives believe in the potential of devolution to enable the development of distinctive policies to meet specific needs. At its best, devolution should give governments the chance to innovate. And in the last 20 years, there have been times when the Welsh Government has done so. Wales introduced a charge for plastic carrier bags in 2011. In 2015, the UK Government introduced a 5p charge in England.
And we have used billions fewer of them since the charge was introduced. Wales pioneered the policy of giving presumed consent for organ donations – and the UK Government is now doing the same. But if the Welsh Government has used devolution to innovate in some areas, in too many others we have seen devolution used for the opposite purpose. Not to change things for the better, but to keep things the same. To avoid taking the difficult, sometimes controversial path of public service reform. And in the services Welsh people rely on……their schools and colleges……their GP practices and hospitals……the record of twenty years of devolved Labour government is nothing short of shameful. We know about Labour’s failures on the NHS.But their record on education is just as bad. The lowest score of any UK nation on the international PISA assessments. The only UK nation to score below the OECD average in reading. Welsh Ministers talked about taking their ‘eye off the ball,’ becoming ‘complacent’ and ‘falling short’. But let’s not mince words: Labour have betrayed a generation of Welsh children. And as UK Prime Minister, I care about the future of every child in the UK. I want everyone to get the best start in life and for ours to be a country that truly works for everyone. And if the UK is to thrive outside the EU, we need to be firing on all cylinders. Andrew and the Welsh Conservatives have set out some of the policies which can help improve education in Wales……funding schools directly, improving inspections and ending the one-size-fits all approach in the classroom. The only way to bring about the improvements Wales needs in education is by electing a Conservative Government in Wales to make them. But in the meantime my message to the next First Minister – whoever he or she is – is clear. Just as the UK Government learned from the Welsh Government’s work on plastic bags and organ donation, take a look at what Conservatives have achieved in school reform. Look at the new curriculum which has driven up standards – with England now scoring higher in international studies. Look at the free schools and academies that are bringing in diverse providers to create more excellent school places and getting some of the best results at GCSE. Look at the transformation in technical education that we are now leading – with high-quality T-levels and new Institutes for Technology – prestigious institutions that will offer technical education and training to young people and to those already in employment.
Don’t let politics and ideology blind you to what is working and what could make a difference for young people in Wales. Let’s learn from each other and work together where we can. If the new First Minister wants to take that positive approach – on education and across all policy areas – the UK Government stands ready to do the same. If not, then Wales will be left behind and that is simply not good enough.
As Conservatives we have a better vision for Wales – and Welsh Conservatives are making the case for it. A Wales which thrives at the heart of our United Kingdom – with a stronger economy and greater prosperity in every community. A Wales that seizes the opportunities of Brexit – trading around the world and leading in high-technology and manufacturing. A Wales where every community can make a contribution to our economic success and reap the rewards through our Modern Industrial Strategy. Let’s work every day to deliver that stronger economy and fairer society in the future. Let’s build a Wales – and build a Britain – that truly works for everyone.
For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.
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