It’s been a rockier fortnight for Carwyn Jones in the Welsh Assembly than anyone expected. After Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru allied with the battered Conservative party and the jubilant UKIP to block his automatic reappointment to the post of First Minister (an act which seemed to shock Jones to tears), he eventually managed to resume control after striking a deal with Plaid Cymru to stand in the second vote unopposed, in exchange for a number of policy concessions.
Representing the fact that Leanne Wood’s surprise victory in the Rhondda constituency has reduced Labour to a minority government, Jones has appointed Kirsty Williams - the last surviving Liberal Democrat AM - to the Welsh Cabinet as Education Secretary in a quasi-coalition. This is a bad miscalculation on the part of the First Minister.
Although the burden of collective responsibility will make a vote of confidence impossible for the opposition to win, the appointment of a minister from a party that continues to be punished by the electorate for their complicity in allying with the Conservatives is at best a big political gamble, and at worst a plan that will alienate voters further from a First Minister and government that are now far from popular.
The Liberal Democrats were last in power in Wales in a coalition with Labour from 2003 to 2007. Since then, support for the party has stagnated and flatlined, with the complexities of the electoral system seeing them reduced in this year’s election to fifth place, with only Williams surviving through her popular and amenable personality, which resisted the trend in national vote share and led her to boost her majority to over 8,000 as her four colleagues were routed and ousted from office.
Perhaps Welsh Labour seek to try and replicate the success that David Cameron surprisingly enjoyed last year from his Westminster coalition with the Lib Dems, and the subsequent snatch of 27 seats in the House of Commons that pushed his party into a majority and a second term, and denied an expectant Labour the reins of power. However, it is just as likely that the appointment of Williams will backfire and cost both Labour and the Lib Dems yet more seats and votes to upcoming parties such as Plaid Cymru and UKIP.
For Kirsty Williams, Carwyn Jones has perhaps been overly cruel by positioning her in a bittersweet posting for any Liberal Democrat - education. In particular, the upcoming Diamond Review into higher education will leave the outcome over tuition fees in her purview when it is published in September. Although the Labour manifesto promises Welsh higher education students “a better package of student support than that on offer in England”, given the weakening state of Britain’s finances and Wales’s economy in general, it is difficult to foresee that the cost of tuition for the student will not rise noticeably. Given the fracas back in 2011 with English tuition fees, this possible second U-turn on a thorny issue would test even Williams’s popularity with the public.
In any event, Jones and Labour will face a difficult path to retaining power in 2021, with a resurgent Plaid Cymru, burgeoning UKIP support and a governing Labour party that after (by then) 22 years in power will be far from refreshing to the average Welsh voter.