What an interesting start to the new Senedd term!
The selection of the First Minister is usually a formality, being at the bequest of the largest party when they have a working majority. But on this occasion it has become anything but a formality.
Let me start my analysis by stating that what I’m about to say is my reading of events based, in no small measure, on conversations that I have had today with 4 AMs from 3 different parties. So what happened?
Firstly, it appears that Plaid Cymru suggested to Labour that the selection of First Minister be postponed while inter-party talks were undertaken to work out the working relationships in the new Senedd. I am not at all surprised that Labour saw little point in this as they were always going to work on the assumption that they were going to form a minority government with Carwyn Jones at its head.
It was equally unsurprising that Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, who both aspire to leading the government of Wales one day, would jump on this as the arrogance of Welsh Labour exercising their sense of entitlement to govern in Wales, irrespective of what sort of mandate they are given from the electorate.
Having had talks with Labour rebutted, Plaid Cymru decide to stand Leanne Wood against Carwyn Jones in the First Minister selection process. From what I can gather this has never happened before. The Labour minority governments of Rhodri Morgan saw him selected unopposed, or when in coalition, saw him selected as first minister with a coalition partner as Deputy (LD Mike German in 2000 and PC Ieuan Wyn Jones in 2007) thrashed out in the coalition agreement negotiations. PC’s move seems to have been a response to Labour dismissing any discussion of a possible working relationship. I think this was very ill-advised on PC’s part. I said earlier in the week that they should stay well clear of a coalition with Labour and focus on being an effective opposition force, with a possible confidence and supply arrangement over matters of policy that PC would want to support. I think they will be regretting this strategy as the implications of what has emerged from it sink in.
As soon as they resolved to stand Leanne against Carwyn, they notified the other parties of their intent. This is a far as it went – and I am very confident that this is the fact of the matter. It was, however, a clear invitation for the other opposition parties to give Carwyn a bloody nose at the start of the new term. But it provided an opportunity for them to wound PC into the bargain. And with UKipper familiarity with the dark arts of politics in particular, it was an opportunity too good to miss. They thrive on chaos.
Leanne Wood, and all her PC colleagues, had taken very opportunity possible during the election campaign to stress that they would not work with either the Conservatives or UKip. What happened today was not PC so much working with them, but it was a opportunity to be seen to back Leanne in way that would have no adverse consequences for them , but would effectively tar and feather PC for being seen to even associate with and talk to them.
Initially, I was pretty disgusted that Kirsty Williams, the lone Lib Dem, chose to support Carwyn. It smacked of supporting the establishment party yet again. However, I now think she has done everybody a favour. Had she backed Leanne, Leanne’s bluff would have been well and truly called and she would have become First Minister without a snowball’s chance in hell of actually being able to form a government. It would have been a complete farce. Why so?
Firstly, attempting to form a coalition of all the opposition would be completely untenable as well as political suicide of the most absurd kind. It would be even more unforgivable than the LD coalition with the Tories in Westminster. I suspect at least two thirds of the membership would resign immediately. Secondly, not only have Labour already effectively ruled it out, but a coalition with Labour would also not go down well with the PC members. Relationships between the parties, especially in Cardiff, and especially after ‘cheap-date-gate’ are at an all time low, and set to drop even lower after this episode. Again PC would likely haemorrhage members and support if they went down this route. It is all nonsensical.
So what happens next?
I presume they try again, next week I am guessing. If it is not resolved with 28 days, Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns (if not forced to resign over his bloated election spending), will have the option of dissolving the Assembly and calling another election. This would certainly be an interesting prospect.
If PC decide to put Leanne up against Carwyn again, I expect the Tories and UKip to do as they did this time. This would give Kirsty an interesting casting vote scenario. Would she be tempted to call Leanne’s bluff, perhaps in a deal that saw her offered her a ministerial position? Would Labour then feel forced into some form of coalition with PC? They may not want to risk another election so soon having seen so many supposed safe seats become marginals now last week’s election.
I hope this is not what happens. I cannot see it ending well for anybody. It is a political stunt that is danger of back-firing badly on PC, but what has been done cannot be undone. I would like to see PC take a step back and re-assess what is the best way forward from here. Carwyn has had his bloody nose; let’s move on. I am assuming that it was never the intention for PC to try and force their way into government, with or without Leanne as first minister. It may have been the intention to try and force a new election and capitalise on the Rhondda result and host of near misses. However, given that mud sticks, the ‘working with UKip and Tories at the first opportunity’ mud would remain far to fresh and sticky for that to really stand any chance of working.
The best way forward is for them to do what they probably should have done in the first place. That is, do not stand Leanne against Carwyn but abstain from the vote for First Minister if there is a contest. A minority Labour government with Carwyn at the helm is a recipe for continued mediocrity, which may not be the best thing for the welsh public, but does allow other parties and PC and the LD in particular some leverage on policy making irrespective of formal agreements. It is the best way to maintain the Party’s identity – which this episode is sadly in danger of seriously tarnishing and blurring – and given a spell of effective opposition, is the best way of building support come the next election.