After seventeen years of ground-breaking government/managed decline [delete as your political persuasion demands] the National Assembly for Wales entered its fifth phase this week. Last week’s election was one which saw the governing Welsh Labour party lose just one seat; Plaid Cymru make minor inroads (+1) ; the Welsh Conservatives fall back (-3) ; and the Welsh Liberal Democrats reduced to a single member (-4). It also saw the new force of UKIP join the establishment with a total of seven seats.
All this left the Assembly finely balanced, with Welsh Labour precariously holding 29 of the 60 available seats. This means that in order to form a government, agree budgets and pass legislation, a minority Labour government will need the support of two or more opposition members on every occasion until May 2021, unless a coalition is formed.
UKIP came to the Assembly with the promise of shaking things up. So far this has certainly been a campaign commitment they’ve managed to keep. In a week when Cardiff Bay has been like an episode of Borgen, it has been the UKIP Group (or groups as we will see) which quickly established themselves as the linchpin around which chaos reigned.
As the final Assembly Members were being sworn in on Tuesday, Westminster legend Neil Hamilton saw an opportunity to challenge Wales UKIP Leader Nathan Gill for the leadership of the Group in the Assembly. Mr Hamilton won the vote by four votes to three.
Nigel Farage was furious. He described events as “unjust” and an act of “deep ingratitude”. Mr Hamilton responded quickly stating that the party in Wales (of which Gill is still the appointed leader – by Mr Farage – in all things other than Assembly business) will “give appropriate weight to the opinion of the MEP for the South East of England.” It was subsequently reported that Mr Hamilton then sacked Gill/Farage loyal Support Staff and stated he would be employing his wife Christine as his Diary Secretary.
On Wednesday the Assembly met for the first time to get minor things out of the way such as electing a new Presiding Officer (wrongly the focus of speculation ahead of the session) and a new First Minister. In what appeared to be a joke, those in charge of the seating plan even manged to find a way of splitting UKIP into two groups of four and three in order to drive home the events of the previous day.
Welsh Labour, feeling they had sufficient mandate to continue their dynasty nominated Carwyn Jones to be First Minister. Plaid Cymru then threw a curve ball by nominating Leanne Wood. It was at this point things got messy.
Plaid Cymru correctly argued that given Welsh Labour didn’t have a majority they were within their rights to nominate their leader and give her the chance to win a vote of confidence. For this to work of course Plaid Cymru needed the Welsh Conservatives, UKIP and the lonely Welsh Liberal Democrat to support it – rich thinking from a party who promised not to do deals with the Tories and Kippers!
What Plaid Cymru seemed not to realise is that in doing so they laid a trap for themselves. The Welsh Conservatives and UKIP saw a way of bringing Welsh Labour down a peg or two while also making Plaid Cymru look like the bad guys. They both supported Leanne Wood in a roll-call vote which caused shouts of surprise from the public gallery. With the lonely Welsh Liberal Democrat choosing to support Labour based on “the reality of the election result” the vote was tied.
Welsh Labour went ballistic. #Plaidkip quickly started trending. Leaflets were allegedly printed. Mean things were said. The Bay was stunned that Plaid Cymru and UKIP were on the same side (few cared about the Welsh Conservatives or the Welsh Liberal Democrat). Plaid Cymru protested that this was a procedural way of making the point that Welsh Labour needs to be less arrogant, and that no deal was made with UKIP. UKIP said this is what they meant by shaking things up, and that Plaid Cymru had actually approached them ahead of the session with their plan. Either way UKIP were again at the centre of the action.
The result is that no new government can be formed – something concerning given the ongoing Steel Crisis and threat of Brexit wrecking the whole economy. Welsh Labour have a number of options and now have several days to enact them before the Assembly returns next week. However, if the deadlock continues into June Wales will need to have a second general election.
Welsh Labour just need to get one more supporter, or at least get one fewer person to support Leanne Wood. They are currently wrapped in negotiations across political divides, but they are also talking on an individual basis to members who are not all that close to the Plaid Cymru leader.
At the time of writing UKIP are again at the centre of the debate with former Conservative MP Mark Reckless (now UKIP Assembly Member) suggesting that he and Mr Gill could support Carwyn Jones were he to commit to scrapping the Severn crossings tolls when the bridges come into public ownership. Social media again went mad given the number of Welsh Labour politicians condemning #Plaidkip overnight now facing the prospect of #Labkip.
Plaid Cymru are also trying to save face by seeking formal talks with Welsh Labour over a deal. This move is likely to be resisted by senior members of the party who feel Welsh Labour will just suck out what works from a junior partner as with their previous 2007-2011 coalition.
While all this takes place two things are clear to the people of Wales. That good, strong governance is still some way off, and that UKIP have arrived with a bang!
By Alexander Phillips for @GraylingWL, posted by Tim Watkin