Welsh Assembly faces greater uncertainty after Labour-Plaid spat

A bizarre dispute over Labour's public health bill has undermined the possibility of cross-party cooperation following May's elections


The final act of the fourth National Assembly for Wales will go down in the history of the institution as one of the most bizarre events to take place within its young walls.

In its’ final session before May’s elections, the Assembly voted on the Government’s Public Health (Wales) Bill. The Bill, which has previously drawn considerable attention and controversy beyond Offa’s Dyke, would have introduced a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in certain public places, among other things.

As Labour do not have a majority in the Assembly – they currently hold 30 of the 60 seats – they require an Assembly Member (AM) from another party to vote with them for Bills to pass. Plaid Cymru had given their AMs a free vote on the Bill, with two of their AMs – Elin Jones and Llyr Gruffydd – making it known that they would support the Bill.

That is until Labour Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews (a figure with a controversial past in the Assembly) stood to speak. He began by thanking Plaid Cymru AMs for their help in the passing of the Local Government (Wales) Bill.

He then, seemingly unable to help himself, followed this thanks by saying: ‘Indeed I thought at the time they were a rather cheap date.’

A collective in-take of breath could be heard in the Siambr as he finished his remarks, with Plaid AM Simon Thomas – who was standing in for Leanne Wood – ominously replying: ‘You may regret that in a few weeks.’

Andrews, clearly unaware of the damage he had wrought on his own Government’s Bill, stood and chuckled. Plaid’s response was a decision to collectively vote against the Bill, and as such it was defeated, leaving the fourth Assembly with a decidedly bitter taste in its mouth.

The immediate fallout has been serious, if unnoticed by many outside of Wales, with Plaid’s actions drawing a mixture of praise and scorn. The collective feeling among Plaid Cymru was that Labour needed to be taught a lesson.

Responding to the incident, Plaid AM Elin Jones (who originally intended to support the Bill) said of Andrews’ words:

“It was not a flippant, feisty comment from the Labour backbenches. It was obvious to all present, Labour included, that a line had been crossed.”

Daran Hill, founder of political consultancy firm Positif Politics, described it as:

“Part of a pattern of behaviour from Welsh Government which would be more appropriate coming from a secure government with a huge majority rather than one relying on deals and arrangements to survive and get its business through.”

On the other side of the Siambr, the First Minister Carwyn Jones called Plaid’s actions ‘childish’, while Deputy Minister for Health Vaughan Gething said that the entire affair gave an impression of an Assembly that ‘doesn’t look and sound like a grown-up institution.’

Further fallout has been seen within the ranks of Plaid Cymru, with former Plaid leader and current AM Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who supported the Bill but was not present for the vote, publicly declaring that he felt ‘betrayed’ by his party.

Perhaps even more bizarre is that the ramifications of this whole event could be felt for a number of years to come. The rise of UKIP in Wales means that it looks increasingly likely that in order for a future Labour Government to pass legislation through the next Assembly, they would have to rely on some form of support from Plaid, with a second Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition a possibility.

However, Jones cast doubt on any further support offered by Plaid to Labour, saying that Andrews’s comments ‘instantly put in jeopardy any future cross-party cooperation between political parties’.

With such ill-feeling now apparent between the two parties, the chances of them entering into a support agreement after May’s devolved elections looks increasingly slim, leaving the outcome of May’s elections even more uncertain than before.

Jac Larner is a PhD researcher at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University

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