For the Conservatives yesterday, the bad news would not stop rolling in. The 10 O’Clock news led with the story that cabinet member Alun Cairns was facing calls to resign. It followed up with the story that cabinet member Jacob Rees-Mogg was facing calls to resign.
At first look, Rees-Mogg’s comments about the victims of Grenfell looked particularly damaging (and were exacerbated by Andrew Bridgen’s even crasser contribution). But subsequent events have shown that Conservative HQ considered Cairns the more dangerous story. This morning the inevitable happened. Cairns resigned.
The story runs as follows. Last year Cairns endorsed his former aide Ross England for the seat of the Vale of Glamorgan in the Welsh Assembly. Earlier in 2018, England had collapsed the rape trial of his friend James Hackett when he alluded to the defendant’s sexual history.
Cairns denied knowledge of England’s involvement in the trial when he endorsed him – but yesterday the BBC unearthed an email that proved otherwise. Hackett was eventually found guilty, and the rape victim called for the Welsh minister to step down.
“This is a very sensitive matter, and in light of continued speculation, I write to tender my resignation as Secretary of State for Wales,” Cairns wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister earlier today. “I will cooperate in full with the investigation under the Ministerial Code.”
If the Conservatives are to have a successful election, they need to do well in Wales. To offset potential losses in Scotland and the south of England, the Tories are hoping to pick up former coal-mining seats like Blaenau Gwent (which voted 62 per cent to leave) and Torfaen (60 per cent leave).
To do this the Tories need to overturn deep Labour roots. Blaenau Gwent, for example, is the old constituency of Labour titans like Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot.
At the moment the Tories are not helping themselves. Another of their key targets is Gower, which Labour won back from the Tories in 2017. Earlier this week it emerged that the prospective Tory candidate there Francesca O’Brien had written on Facebook five years ago that welfare recipients “needed putting down” after watching the Channel Four show Benefits Street.
Polling at the moment shows Wales could go either way – there is just one point in it between Labour and the Conservatives. On this basis the Tories, who never traditionally ventured far beyond Offa’s Dyke, would pick up nine seats.
But everything is delicately poised. The slightest bad news for the Conservatives in Wales could have a disproportionate impact on the election. No wonder Cairns had to go.