Lunch with... Nerys Evans and Cathy Owens
PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with Deryn Consulting directors Nerys Evans and Cathy Owens at Shepherd's restaurant.
After two years of PAN lunches, it seemed time to mix things up a bit. So my first post general election lunch broke new ground in three respects: it wasn’t in Shepherd’s; it wasn’t in London; and I had two lunch guests rather than one.
Lunch for the many, not the few as one might say.
I met with Cathy Owens and Nerys Evans, Directors of Deryn Consulting in The Saint David’s Hotel in Cardiff Bay. Cathy kicks off.
"Three of us started Deryn five years ago. There had been a chill in the market over the first ten to fifteen years of devolution, so there was a gap for a new agency to come in with new ideas, and more senior experience. Since then, we’ve grown every year, and are now probably the largest Welsh public affairs agency."
"We cover all the devolved and non-devolved policy areas. We’ve both had experience of being on the receiving end of lobbying, and that allows us to do things differently."
I ask for an explanation of the name. And Cathy provides one.
"Deryn means bird in Welsh. Because it was three birds starting the company, we thought it was a very good reflection of the new Wales. We are embracing the term 'birds'".
As I laugh, Nerys adds:
"We’re proud of the fact that we’re a predominantly female team. It reflects Wales. The Welsh Assembly was the first political institution in the world to have gender balance. When I was an Assembly member, we had delegations of politicians from across the world visit to see how we did it. We’ve both been active in our various parties to make sure that continues."
Cathy is Labour; Nerys is Plaid; and the other founding partner was Lib Dem. Which points to a nicely balanced approach to lobbying. Cathy confirms that view.
"In the main now we’re significantly Labour and Plaid Cymru, but we’ve shifted at various points, and we’ve had both Lib Dems and Conservatives as part of the team. We were also the first public affairs agency to engage effectively with UKIP in Wales. Partly, because we knew our clients would need to, because we knew what was going to happen in the Assembly elections."
And of course, the reality is that the Welsh political scene has been an incredibly interesting one since 1999, with the Assembly balances shifting around. The Deryn ladies have already given me a cartwheel document showing the political colours of every Welsh AM who’s ever been elected. And believe me when I say it’s even more colourful than Neil Hamilton’s wardrobe…
Against a backdrop of Labour dominance, who’s providing the opposition I ask? The Conservatives here are the official opposition Cathy tells me
"But they’re not the party with ideas necessarily. They aren’t the ones coming forward with new ways of running the Welsh Government, and have found themselves in perpetual opposition. They haven’t had the strongest leadership. If they had a Ruth Davidson figure, they might be able to shift that."
I ask if they think the Tory Party still hasn’t embraced devolution? And Nerys provides a fine example in response.
"In the election debates, they couldn’t agree who was going to represent them. Was it the Leader of the Welsh Assembly Group, or the Secretary of State. One of them decided to have a day off to celebrate his wedding anniversary; the other one thought he wasn’t doing it. So it ended up being the Assembly Group director of policy."
This doesn’t exactly sound ideal. We turn to the general election result, a contest in which the Tories had hoped to make major gains. Cathy provides her analysis
"We always felt Labour would do better here in Wales than in the rest of the UK. And we knew that the Conservatives would do much better than previously, And they did do very well here, and increased their vote significantly. But they still lost seats.
"At the start of the campaign they were ahead in the polls, but that changed rapidly. The first five points of that change came because Welsh Labour launched a very positive campaign, in a very Welsh way.
"When the Conservative party started running into difficult territory that added another five points to Labour. People quite like Welsh Labour. And the reason they like it, is because it has clear red water. More leftish education and health policy, and yet a very pro-business agenda. So, they look very reasonable."
Were they surprised by the result? Yes, says Cathy.
"We were surprised, because even though we had plenty of polls in Wales telling us what was going on, we didn’t believe them. Nobody did. We should have."
Given Nerys used to be a Plaid AM, I ask her what it means for her party
"We went up from three to four MPs -Plaid’s best tally. A great new MP in Ceredigion, Ben Lake, means that the Lib Dems now have no MPs in Wales. And in a hung parliament, a couple of votes could be quite substantial and quite significant."
We’re interrupted by food. How shocking at lunchtime! On resumption, I ask Nerys to tell me about the campaign of which Deryn is most proud.
"The work we did on a Bill designed to tackle violence against women. The content was Civil-Serviced to the point where when it came out, it didn’t have the word ‘women’ in it. It was just so weak that it wouldn’t have had any significant effect on anything.
"So we spent a long, long time working with a coalition of organisations, and running a campaign to challenge the Welsh Government to strengthen the Bill. And one of the first things we managed to do was to get the word ‘women’ back in. We also managed to strengthen it on issues to do with the workplace, and with higher education. In the final 24 hours, we had to keep fighting for what we knew was right. And we were successful.
"That’s something that we can hang our hat on, that nobody else can really."
And who could disagree? The power and purpose of public affairs in action. Finally, I ask for one surprising fact the Deryn ladies are happy to share with readers. Cathy goes first
"My good friend Tonia Antoniazzi has just been elected in the Gower. We first met 20 years ago when we played in the same rugby team, in the same front row. My claim to fame is that I used to run Welsh Women’s Rugby Union."
And then it’s over to Nerys
"I first stood for election and lost to the Looney Party. A mock election in school, I think in ’97, when I was in sixth-form."
On which appropriately Welsh note - rugby and politics- we returned to our food.
Scallops; goats’ cheese x2; ravioli; steak x 2
Mount Langhi (that’s four bits of new ground actually - we didn’t drink Sancerre….)