Welsh Labour prepare for leadership contest as Jones announces departure

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, has announced that he intends to stand down in the autumn, setting the stage for a contest to decide the future course of the Assembly’s only ‘party of government’.

It looks as if last week’s successful effort to block an effort by the Assembly to force the publication of an inquiry into his administration has offered him the opportunity to leave on as close to a high note as he could hope for after months of being dogged by the Carl Sargeant scandal.

Speaking at Welsh Labour conference, Jones also announced the winner of the contest to be the party’s first-ever Welsh deputy leader. However that has stirred up fresh controversy has the winner, Carolyn Harris, won via the electoral college despite having just short of 1,500 fewer votes than Julie Morgan, her Momentum-backed opponent.

As a result, it looks as if the system will be reviewed and likely abandoned before the election of Jones’ successor – although Roger Scully suggests otherwise.

A shift to One Member One Vote (OMOV) is believed to favour a more left-wing candidate, as it did when the UK party changed its rules in 2015. This would further cement the momentum behind Mark Drakeford, the Finance Secretary, who is the candidate most favoured by the left and also has the best-organised campaign.

The fact that Welsh Labour will spend the next few months consumed by internal debate may help to explain why the Welsh Government finally struck a deal with the Government over the future of post-Brexit devolved powers. Whilst London has certainly made too many concessions, this decision isolates Nicola Sturgeon and undermines the SNP’s attempts to spin the Withdrawal Bill as an assault on devolution.

The First Minister has been a leading figure in the “more powers!”/’fragile Union’ political tradition. As I wrote at the end of last year, by pressing Jones on the Sargeant affair the Welsh Conservatives have helped to protect the Government’s western flank during the devolution row. There’s little hope that his successor will learn the lesson about over-indulging Welsh nationalism, however, so their work must continue.

DUP maintain tough line on Brexit as Sinn Fein woos pro-Remain unionists

In his interview with this website yesterday Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionists, reiterated that his party would withdraw its support from the Government if Theresa May conceded so-called ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland.

This is the demand that the Province should remain inside the Single Market and Customs Union, erecting trade and regulatory barriers with the mainland in order to maintain an invisible border with the Republic.

He points out a basic truth which is too often ignored by commentators: that Ulster’s economic interests overwhelmingly align with the United Kingdom. The mainland and global markets account for vastly more of Northern Irish exports (or external sales, in Great Britain’s case) than the rest of Ireland and the EU.

Nor is a completely invisible border a provision of the Belfast Agreement, no matter what Keir Starmer might tell you.

Whilst the DUP have been toughening their stance, Sinn Fein have made a new effort to try and win over pro-Remain unionists. Not only has Mary Lou McDonald, used the name ‘Londonderry’, but the party is actually supporting the nomination of a unionist to the Irish senate.

Ian Marshall, the former president of the Ulster Farmers Union, has been nominated by Leo Varadkar for a vacant seat in the Irish upper house – against rival candidates from his own Fine Gael party. McDonald describes him as “a strong, anti-Brexit unionist voice”.

SNP ‘infuriated’ by Westminster’s offer of help on social security

One of the more absurd dimensions of the current row over devolved powers is that the Scottish Government is having to desperately backpedal on taking over new responsibilities because it’s not ready for them.

Just this week, Sturgeon’s administration has had to ask for a further delay on the transfer of control over welfare benefits, meaning that Westminster will continue to administer the system until 2021 despite ferocious Nationalist criticism of the way the Conservatives are running things.

This is obviously a touchy subject for the SNP. When the Government offered to be ready to continue running things even longer if the new Scottish agencies weren’t ready to take over – an eventuality you wouldn’t rule out, based on the above – Nationalist politicians were reportedly ‘infuriated’ and branded the idea ‘ridiculous’, according to the Scotsman.

But Caroline Gardner, Scotland’s auditor-general, has warned that meeting staffing levels by next summer’s deadline may be difficult, so it is clearly a live possibility even if the Scottish Government’s pride won’t let them prepare for it.

Elsewhere, the SNP were further embarrassed as fresh details emerged of their contact with Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the centre of the scandal over the misuse of Facebook data.