Conservative conference: Lifting the lid on Brexit thinking

By Nick Servini
Political editor, Wales

image captionTheresa May has said she will not give a "running commentary" on Brexit negotiations

It is difficult to see past Brexit negotiations as the main point of discussion for the Conservatives as they gather in Birmingham for their annual conference.

Organisers are not beating around the bush either with the subject top of the agenda on the opening day.

Among the many questions we would all like the answer to is when the official negotiations will begin, firing the starting gun on the UK's withdrawal.

Another is whether tariff-free trade is something the prime minister would ultimately be prepared to sacrifice if it meant it was the only way to limit the unrestricted free movement of people.

Theresa May will inevitably respond to these with the familiar line that she is not prepared to give a running commentary on the negotiations, but conference is bound to lift the lid on some of the cabinet-level thinking.

image copyrightReuters
image captionEU aid for farmers includes direct subsidies and grants for rural development schemes

It may also give a sense of the early thinking on what should be done with funding for agriculture and economically-deprived communities, both particularly relevant for Wales and both set to be changed fundamentally by Brexit.

Westminster will in future provide the money for agriculture but we do not know whether the cash will be handed over to the Welsh Government to be distributed via a system designed in Cardiff, or whether Whitehall would like to have more of a say.

If it is the latter then expect an almighty tussle with the Welsh Government who will resist anything other than complete control.

And then there is the replacement for EU structural funds for areas such as the south Wales valleys.

It is too early to get any indication of whether the UK government would replace this - never mind how - but there have been some strong comments from Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns about the need for this kind of aid to undergo major change.

Elsewhere on the policy front, the interesting question for the party is whether it tries to move into the centre ground in response to Jeremy Corbyn's dominance of Labour, or whether it looks to maintain its traditional ground to the right with policies like the reintroduction of grammar schools in England.

image captionAndrew RT Davies looks secure as Welsh Conservative leader despite losing Senedd seats

The Welsh Tories are gathering after a disappointing year which saw them go backwards in the assembly elections and lose their status as the main opposition.

What made it worse was the fact it followed the party's best result in Wales in 30 years at the 2015 general election.

There has been an internal review carried out into what went wrong but I am told it is not the kind of report that could put the leader in Wales, Andrew RT Davies, in any difficulty.

In fact, it appears he has nothing to worry about having found himself on the right side in the referendum campaign as a high-profile Brexiteer.

He is also being helped by the lack of any obvious candidates to challenge him for the top job in Wales.

But this is a party, and a current leadership, that will be defined by Brexit - and applies as much in Leave-supporting Wales as anywhere else.

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