What does Kirsty Williams’ exit mean for the Lib Dems and Welsh politics?
Ask an observer of Welsh politics who the most influential politician of the devolved era is. You will no doubt get a familiar roster of names in response. Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, certainly. Maybe a Mark Drakeford – or even a Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
But Kirsty Williams, who announced her retirement as MS for Brecon and Radnorshire yesterday, has arguably as good a claim as any of the men above – albeit not for the reasons one might initially think.
Williams is indeed a history-maker in becoming the first female leader of a political party in the Senedd. It is also true that her time as Education Minister has encompassed some significant changes to Wales’ education system.
These are both notable feats by themselves. However, if one thinks in terms of those “turning points” moments beloved by historians, Williams’ most enduring legacy is twice ensuring Labour’s continuance in government.
Think back to 2007 when Labour dropped to 26 seats, outflanked by the opposition parties. Williams’ dogged opposition to a deal between Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats scuppered the prospect of a Rainbow Coalition. Labour eventually formed a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
The closest Labour has come to losing power since then was the tied First Minister vote between Carwyn Jones and Plaid’s Leanne Wood in 2016. With Williams’ support, Jones was able to form a new government. Her reward was the post of Education Minister.
The Welsh party has – despite limited resources and media coverage – tirelessly promoted Williams’ achievements in implementing reforms to higher education (HE) funding and embedding an ambitious new national curriculum.
Yet its Westminster-based equivalents have done little to highlight these. The lack of reaction from Liberal Democrats in Westminster to Williams’ announcement underscores the federal party’s inability to use participation in government alongside Labour to its electoral advantage.
Given the criticism the Liberal Democrats still receive from some on the centre-left for their coalition with the Conservatives, it is staggering that the party’s UK leadership does not do more to emphasise its current coalition with left-leaning Labour.
However, despite its current electoral doldrums, the party could continue to exercise a big impact on the future make-up of the Welsh Government.
This is despite the fact that, looking forward to next year’s Senedd elections, holding Brecon and Radnorshire without Williams – who was one of the few politicians in the Senedd who could rely on a personal vote – will be tricky for the Liberal Democrats.
Her replacement as Senedd candidate is as yet undecided. It would be surprising, though, if it were anyone other than Jane Dodds, the current leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Dodds failed to hold the Brecon and Radnorshire Westminster seat at last year’s general election – but she has been in near-permanent campaign mode ever since.
But even if the worst happens for the Welsh Liberal Democrats and they lose Brecon and Radnorshire, some interesting electoral permutations arise. The party would probably pick up a seat via the Mid and West Wales regional list – something that blocks off the most likely avenue to Senedd representation for the anti-devolution parties.
It may very well be the case that a Welsh Liberal Democrat MS ends up just as instrumental in the government formation process next year as their predecessor was in 2007 and 2016.