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Evans: Transforming Welsh politics forever

Speech to the Welsh Conservative Party conference in Cardiff.

"This is a tough time to be First Minister in Wales.

Wales against Ireland - lost. Wales against Scotland - lost. Wales against France - lost.

And who was in the front row for every game? Rhodri Morgan.

It was all so different two years ago. At the height of the Grand Slam success you couldn't turn on Radio Wales without hearing Rhodri Morgan's opinions on everything, including the line-up of the Welsh team.

Typical Rhodri. No opinion on the Iraq war, but opinions to spare on Gavin Henson.

Welsh Labour used to think that like everything else in Wales they owned Welsh rugby. In the 1970s at the height of Welsh success they even put out a press release claiming that Grand Slam and Triple Crown successes for Wales only occurred in years of Labour government. Yes, they really did. Issued believe it or not from Transport House in Cathedral Road, Cardiff.

Well, I've got some news for Gareth Jenkins and the Welsh team. I saw the First Minister on Monday this week and he has promised he won't be going to the Italy game. 'The lads could do without the pressure,' he said.

Wales will be better of without him in Rome. And we'll all be better off without him in May.

Labour is tired and outdated in Wales, and tired and outdated in Europe too.

Barely a couple of years ago Tony Blair was promising that we would be at the heart of Europe and the Euro and the new EU constitution were essential parts of all that.

I am delighted that it was under my leadership that the British Conservative MEPs took forward the demand for a referendum on the constitution which ultimately sunk the project in France and the Netherlands.

Today, no-one in this Labour government defends this constitution - but who was the British architect of the doomed treaty. The man who sat in meeting after meeting in Brussels and Strasbourg day in day out, night in night out, fighting for Britain, and giving in, conceding and surrendering to the blueprint of a centralised, federal Europe - none other than the then Europe Minister Peter Hain.

At the time Labour promised us all that these centralising plans including a European Foreign Minister, a European Defence Minister, and major new powers for the European courts to overturn British courts in completely new areas of civil and criminal law 'had no more legal force than the Beano'.

Well, it shows you what the civil servants put in those ministerial boxes nowadays.

But I'm told that John Prescott still finds the Beano heavy going.

And whatever happened to Labour's enthusiasm for the Euro? When it was launched every other serious British party wanted the Euro - Labour, LibDems, Plaid. They joined in denouncing our opposition, and warned of the dire economic consequences for British industry if we didn't join up immediately.

How things have changed! No-one in their right senses wants it today.

And how do we explain that Tony Blair gives away £7bn of the UK rebate without getting anything in return. I couldn't understand it either until this last week. It seems that Tony Blair thought Jacques Chirac had phoned him to tell him in confidence that France would give up all the EU subsidies to French farmers if Tony gave up the rebate. But it now seems Tony has come to the awful realisation that it wasn't Chirac on the phone but Rory Bremner.

There is another party in the European Parliament - UKIP. But no-one can claim it is a serious party. On the contrary, the word that haunts UKIP is fraud.

In 2004 UKIP pulled the wool over the eyes of the media and many voters. Using fraudulent opinion polling and driven by the bandwagon of Robert Kilroy-Slik and Joan Collins they amazingly persuaded newspaper editors, including the Independent, that they were about to win the European elections outright. In the event they won 12 seats. Within days it was discovered that one of their MEPs was actually on bail for housing benefit fraud. He left to form a 'friends of fascists' group in Brussels. He was followed by Kilroy, who failed to win the leadership of the party so formed his own, and then resigned from that.

Then this week we find another UKIP MEP under investigation by the European Fraud authorities for diverting staff pay into his own accounts. Two others are threatening to resign next week.

This week UKIP's leader was in Wales claiming that their next big breakthrough would be in the National Assembly elections. I can only say that everything you need to know about UKIP's leader can be seen in the News of the World or in the statement of UKIP's Wales chairman resigning from the party just a few months ago. I won't repeat it, but you couldn't make it up. You wouldn't want to buy a used car from these people. And no-one in Wales should trust them with their vote.

Barely eight years ago we Conservatives fought the first elections to the National Assembly for Wales.

It was just two years after our 1997 election defeat. We had no MPs at Westminster and less than 100 councillors in the country. It was a bad time for Welsh Conservatives.

Our campaign was negative and pessimistic - seeing the worst in everything, and our party divided - with too many self-centred individuals rushing to the media to leak or brief against one another. A bit like Welsh Labour today.

But today we are forward looking and confident. We have re-established Parliamentary representation at Westminster with our excellent MPs David Jones, David Davies and Stephen Crabb

We have a record number of councillors, with still more Conservative gains this week.

We are part of the administration on more and more councils, and we have even pushed Plaid Cymru back into third place in the European elections.

But it is in the National Assembly that we have really taken forward this transformation.

Over those eight years we have not just changed. We have transformed our party.

Our Assembly team has led this change. It has not been easy. Our party opposed establishing the Assembly. I led for us in that campaign.

But it has always been the Conservative way since Disraeli to adapt our party to new challenges we face, and our team in the National Assembly have established our party as the most effective in Cardiff Bay.

And Nick Bourne deserves huge credit for this. For two successive years Conservatives have carried off the prize as the best AM - Nick Bourne last year and Jonathan Morgan just a few weeks ago.

We have been the first to recognise that the new architecture of Welsh politics requires parties to try and work together in the interests of the people. Like climate change that's a lesson Rhodri Morgan hasn't cottoned on to yet.

Of course, every party would like an overall majority, but here's another fact Peter Hain and Rhodri need to recognise - Labour has never won a majority of Welsh votes, and does not have a freehold over our country.

Too many in Welsh Labour seem to think our country belongs to them. That Labour should continue to rule throughout Wales in the council chambers and in Cardiff Bay.

But that arrogant attitude ignores the two essential realities. First, the Labour Party today struggles to find the support of two of every five voters, and second the Assembly voting system rightly recognises that the other three in five - a majority - reject Labour.

Of course, we would all like to look into the crystal ball and forecast the outcome of May's elections. But there is one result that is for certain - a minority of people in Wales will vote for Labour, and more voters than ever will support the Welsh Conservatives.

We are no longer inward looking and negative about the challenges Wales faces.

Although those challenges have grown greater, we have become ever-more positive and optimistic about our capacity to contribute to improving life for everyone in Wales.

We understand that working together with other parties is not some clandestine 'hole in the wall' activity like Rhodri Morgan's late night deals with the nationalists, but an everyday dialogue based upon a self-confidence on our own values with a determination to do our best for Wales.

Over the years Welsh Conservatives consistently won the support of between a quarter and a half of Welsh voters. Less than 25 years ago Margaret Thatcher led us to within two points of beating Labour in the 1983 General Election.

And incidentally, for those in Welsh Labour and other pundits who think it is an easy and cheap shot to blame Margaret Thatcher for mining and steelworks closures just note that the Prime Minister who closed more mines year in year out during his terms of office was Harold Wilson, darling of the Durham Miners' Gala - twice as many as under Margaret Thatcher and three times per year more than Ted Heath.

And while we are about it, one other piece of Valleys history - the ministerial team which closed the Ebbw Vale steelworks were none other than Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

I know, as Max Boyce would say, because I was there at the Ebbw Vale rugby ground addressing a mass protest meeting of steelworkers. Another person present that day was the late Peter Law.

I knew Peter for over 30 years. Our political views were very different, but he was a man for the new politics of Wales. Self confident in his own views, but willing to work with others in the interests of the whole community.

Just two years ago I spoke at the Ebbw Vale Conservative Club to celebrate the club's centenary. The other speaker was Peter Law Member of Parliament. Already laid low by his final illness Peter had barely a few more weeks to live, but he was as charming and humorous as ever.

As a former Labour councillor, Labour mayor and Labour Assembly Member he told us all it was the first time he had ever been in his local Tory club.

But he went on to tell us of how the club's presence throughout a hundred years of political and industrial history as a focus of steadfast Conservatism in Ebbw Vale was something to be celebrated.

And he also pointed to the massive contribution that the club had made to charitable and community events in the town throughout the 20th century.

In all this he said the Conservatives in Ebbw Vale demonstrated how they had a right to be considered as an integral and important part of the Ebbw Vale community, just as much of a right as Labour had taken for granted for itself.

Sadly Peter continued to be denounced as a traitor by Welsh Labour to the day he died, but I believe that in those words and in the way he conducted himself in public life he demonstrated a real perception about the changed political character of our country.

A willingness to work with our political opponents is not a sign of weakness but of our self-confidence, optimism and strength.

So let us take that message into the elections in May - with it we may just transform Welsh politics forever."

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