Ant Pickles is co-author of State of the Union and a trustee of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
With little over five weeks to go until elections in Wales, the possible result is far from clear given the tightest polls since devolution began.
Welsh Labour’s political dominance over Wales has lasted over a hundred years, and might be beginning to slip. A recent poll showed that they could fall well short of a majority, and some have suggested this could be an opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives (projected to get a possible 19 seats) to form a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
That’s simply not going to happen. For a start, both sides have ruled it out in very stark terms.
The closest deal done between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives was in 2007, but that also included the Lib Dems, who at the time dashed the proposal with their conference failing to back it.
That deal was about pursuing a non-Labour option for Wales. But today the political culture, atmosphere, and rhetoric is a world away. Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru has said there are ‘no circumstances’ under which he would consider a coalition.
Humour the idea of any coalition and the terms would be undesirable to Welsh Tories to say the least. For a start Price, who has an almost deity-like following amongst his most hardcore fans, simply couldn’t tarnish his own credentials by supporting a Welsh Conservative first minister.
Secondly, the Conservatives are now the only full throated pro-unionist party left in Wales as Welsh Labour flirts with ‘home rule’ and even independence, so the idea that a referendum or moves in that direction could be accepted by beef-farming Andrew RT Davies is about as likely as him becoming a vegan.
However, let’s say the shock result happens. Labour are left well short of a majority, and Plaid Cymru decide that it simply can’t abide by a further five years of Labour rule. What would a programme for government be? Plaid Cymru wants another referendum on the EU, many want drugs legalised, they are against nuclear power and want the Senedd to have a ‘veto’ on foreign policy.
Just about the only issues of agreement are the idea of a development bank and an agency for inward investment. The makings of a programme for government, it isn’t.
The other reality is Welsh Labour will most likely be the biggest party, even were this poll to become a reality. They might try and govern as a minority, but they’d have to achieve confidence and supply through other parties – and the most obvious is Plaid Cymru. When Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, said last month that ‘the United Kingdom is over’ it almost felt like coalition talks had already begun in open forum. His own ministers have spoken of ‘welcoming the debate on independence’ and that the ‘Union fails Wales’.
But could the condition for a Plaid-Lab deal be calls for a referendum? Yesterday Drakeford said for a referendum to happen, Plaid would need to win a majority, but with support within Welsh Labour growing in the direction of independence, it might well be their price worth paying. That would be a big wake up call for not only Labour HQ but Whitehall too.
The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile can see that there’s a gap that’s been vacated by Welsh Labour on core values of identity as the online culture wars have swayed many on the left. Being Welsh and British, tapping into region investment inequality, and campaigning in plain language are all issues that have made some voters ponder their vote for the first time.
Add to this the most important point: the pandemic has created unprecedented focus on devolution and who makes decisions and where. This election is the first test of voters’ feelings about the pandemic, and surprise polls could be just the start of things to come.
But should the poll published this week come to fruition, don’t expect a Plaid-Tory coalition, it simply isn’t happening.