A nervous new year for Rhodri

By Martin Shipton
Published January 3rd 2005 in Western Mail

RHODRI MORGAN has admitted the possibility that he could be removed from office by opposition AMs during 2005.

Speaking candidly to the Western Mail about possible political developments in the coming year, the First Minister said he was "very aware" that Labour could lose its majority at Cardiff Bay and that the opposition parties could combine to oust him.

With a General Election all but certain to take place on May 5, it is widely expected that Labour's Blaenau Gwent AM Peter Law will stand against the party's official Westminster candidate Maggie Jones.

Ms Jones, a trade union official and Labour NEC member, was selected after an all-woman shortlist was imposed against the will of the local party. Mr Law has not withdrawn his threat to stand as an independent; if, as expected, he does stand, he will be expelled from Labour automatically, win or lose.

That would reduce the Labour group at the Assembly to just 29 members, with 31 in the combined opposition.

Talks have been going on for many months behind the scenes between opposition parties about the possibility of a grand coalition taking over from Labour as the party of government.

Although reluctant to discuss progress publicly, the four opposition groups (Plaid, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Forward Wales's John Marek of Wrexham) share concerns about the state of the health service and a perceived reduction in scrutiny since the May 2003 Assembly elections.

If the opposition parties agree on a programme for government in the next few months, they could theoretically oust Mr Morgan as First Minister in a motion of no confidence after Mr Law's expulsion from Labour, and then set up a coalition administration of their own, presumably headed by Plaid Cymru Assembly leader Ieuan Wyn Jones.

It is understood that Dr Marek, the current Deputy Presiding Officer, has already been pencilled in as a possible Business Minister.

The scheme does, however, have formidable obstacles to overcome if it is to go forward.

Some AMs and many grassroots activists from the main opposition parties will be reluctant to go into coalition with parties they have previously regarded as sworn enemies.

One Plaid AM said, "I can't imagine going into coalition with the Tories after what they did to South Wales in the 1980s."

But another leading Plaid AM made the point that the Assembly has no responsibility for macro- economic policy, and that on a pragmatic basis it would be possible to work out a list of agreed priorities for a coalition government.

One Tory AM nevertheless said, "I think reaching an agreement with Plaid would be difficult. They are likely to be much less enthusiastic than us in using private money in the NHS."

Despite the difficulties, there is an increasing understanding among some Plaid and Tory AMs that their only realistic chance of attaining power in the foreseeable future is in a coalition together.

Mr Morgan told the Western Mail, "At this moment I think people accept that Labour has been given a wafer-thin majority to govern Wales.

"But anything can happen in politics. Strange things happened in Westminster a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the case of David Blunkett proves again how fragile a hold on office ministers have. No-one thinks they have a permanent right to be there.

"The last Assembly elections in 2003 gave Labour 30 seats and the combined opposition parties 30 seats. With the Presiding Officer, who does not vote, coming from the opposition, that gave Labour a majority of one.

"Given the fact that we won half the seats in 2003, most people would find it very odd for Wales to be run by a coalition that didn't include Labour. But stranger things have happened.

"Looking back to February 2000 when I first became First Minister with a minus majority of four - Labour had 28 seats against 32 for the combined opposition - I used to count the weeks that I survived. I was very conscious that Alun Michael had been got rid of, and that there was nothing to stop the opposition parties doing the same thing again. We could have had motions of no confidence and a new First Minister every week.

"As time went on I measured my survival in months instead of weeks, and then we entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to give us stability. Some people in our party, of course, were very much against that.

"You have to accept in a PR (proportional representation) system that things in Wales are always going to be tight - you're never going to have substantial working majorities. Obviously, if we had won Wrexham we would have a majority of two instead of level pegging, but it's not likely we would ever have a majority of more than two or three.

"It's always a fact of life that a ministerial career is at the behest of outside forces.

"In the light of Michael Howard's policy announcement last week that the Conservatives would hold a new devolution referendum with an option to abolish the Assembly, it's difficult to see Plaid Cymru going into a coalition with the Conservatives in Wales.

"On the other hand, Plaid and the Conservatives have worked together at local government level, usually on an informal basis if not in a formal coalition.

"I'm very aware of the possibility at Assembly level, although you mustn't allow that possibility to distract you from the job you're doing."