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Monday, August 16, 1999 Published at 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK

Special Report

Tories seek place in new Wales

Ex-Welsh Tory leader Rod Richards has had a colourful career

The Conservatives in Wales have faced the task of re-inventing themselves in the wake of devolution, and have had to cope with controversy over their former leader Rod Richards.

The Tories took nine seats in the elections to the National Assembly on May, leaving them as the third biggest party in the new institution, after Labour and Plaid Cymru.

[ image:  ]
Devolution has posed a big challenge to the Tories, who had previously been the staunchest opponents of any proposals to grant Wales its own form of self-government.

Two of the leading Welsh Conservatives, Professor Nick Bourne and former MP and Welsh Office minister Rod Richards were prominent in the campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum on devolution in September 1997.

Different approaches

When the hairsbreadth "Yes" vote was announced, the Tories moved quickly to accommodate themselves to the new situation, but Mr Bourne and Mr Richards had very different approaches.

Mr Bourne became a member of the National Assembly Advisory Group helping set up the ground rules for the Assembly. He appeared favourable to the consensual approach to Welsh government offered by the Labour administration.

Mr Richards, however, took a much harder line, vowing to fight the costs of setting up the Assembly, opposing co-operation with other parties and challenging the carefully-achieved consensus over the recently improved status of the Welsh language.

Caroline Evans on the colourful career of former Welsh Tory leader Rod Richards
When it came to a straight one-person-one-vote ballot among Welsh Tories as to who should lead them in the Assembly, the members opted strongly for Mr Richards, whose combative style had earned him the nickname "The Rottweiler".

Mr Bourne, who had been UK party leader William Hague's preferred choice for the job, was rejected, and his subsequent relations with Mr Richards were strained.

In May, both men were elected to the National Assembly as regional list candidates thanks to the proportional representation system introduced for the elections.

[ image: Nick Bourne: Conciliatory approach]
Nick Bourne: Conciliatory approach
The new voting system offered the Conservatives the chance of regaining political influence in Wales after the country was made a "Tory-free zone" in the 1997 General election when not a single Tory was elected.

Mr Richards's tenure as party leader was marked by his characteristically strongly-worded attacks on his political opponents. It was, however, to be a brief reign.

When he was charged in August with causing grievous bodily harm to Cassandra Melvin on 27 July, at Kew in west London, he stood town temporarily from the leadership while he fought the accusation, which he strenuously denies.

He appointed his deputy leader, David Davies, the only Tory to get a constituency seat rather than a list seat in the Assembly elections, as his deputy while he awaits the outcome of the court case.

[ image: David Davies:
David Davies: "Too inexperienced."
However, the bulk of the remaining seven Tory Assembly Members were unhappy with the choice of the 29-year-old Mr Davies, believing him to be too inexperienced.

A crisis meeting of the AMs in Cardiff on August 10 saw Mr Richards make a brief appeal to them to back his chosen successor. But when the AMs rejected his plea and opted for Mr Bourne, Mr Richards resigned his leadership post permanently, claiming he had been "undermined".

The new Tory leader in Wales faces the task not only of rebuilding the party's credibility following the controversy, but of forming an image of Conservatism that will prove acceptable to voters in a country which has historically rejected Tory values.

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