Why a Plaid-Tory deal is closer than you think
If you are a regular reader of Nation.Cymru like me, you will have read Ifan Morgan Jones’ piece a few days ago: ‘No, a Plaid Cymru and Tory coalition just isn’t going to happen’.
And that may be a fair point. Leanne Wood has flatly rejected ever going into a coalition with the Conservatives and Ukip. Specifically, she stated that she would ‘never do a deal which arrives at a coalition with Ukip or the Tories.’
If ‘never do a deal which arrives at a coalition’ seems like very specific wording to you, that’s because it’s supposed to be.
In politics, a coalition is understood to be a specific kind of deal struck between two or more parties where they agree to share governing of a country. That means both being bound by collective responsibility, both having expressed confidence in the First Minister, and both usually sharing the offices of government.
Short of an enduring electoral pact or merging two political parties, it is effectively the highest level of political co-operation.
So yes, it is unlikely that Plaid under Leanne Wood will go into a formal coalition with the Tories. But a coalition in all-but-name isn’t just possible – under certain electoral circumstances, it is likely.
‘How could a Welsh nationalist party led by an avowed republican socialist who voted Remain ever go into coalition with a centre-right Conservative and Unionist Party led by a Brexiteer?!’ I hear you cry.
Well for starters, let’s look at recent history. In the wake of the 2016 elections to the National Assembly for Wales, one of the most dramatic events of recent Welsh political history occurred.
A vote was held to determine the next First Minister of Wales. A roll-call vote was held. This is not usual in the Assembly, as it requires each Member to stand and state the name of the person they wish to support to be the First Minister of Wales.
Labour AMs stood up and, to the surprise of few, called out ‘Carwyn Jones’. To the surprise of some, Plaid AMs stood and called out ‘Leanne Wood’. At first this appeared to be a symbolic act, with Plaid only returning 12 seats.
The real shock came when every single Conservative and Ukip Assembly Member stood and called out ‘Leanne Wood’. The vote went down to the wire, with Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams backing Carwyn Jones.
Plaid’s position at the time was that they had not done any kind of a deal with the Conservatives or Ukip, and that Leanne Wood had held true to her ‘no coalitions’ rule.
In the strictest sense, this was true. There was no coalition as an academic political scientist would understand it. But what was untrue was the idea that there had been no deal between the three parties.
Adam Price later admitted in an interview with Martin Shipton that Plaid Cymru had approached the Conservatives and Ukip to ask for their support, and the two parties had agreed.
In the same interview, Price also insisted that it wasn’t a ‘gimmick’. The attempt to make Leanne Wood First Minister had been genuine.
This brings us to the present day. The events immediately following the 2016 Assembly election are pivotal to our understanding of how a Plaid-Tory deal would look today.
The ‘coalition’ that has been ruled out by Plaid Cymru wouldn’t be necessary. The Tories could make Leanne Wood First Minister without a coalition, and they could pass her budgets without a coalition.
That is all that is necessary to kick Welsh Labour out of government, and establish a minority Plaid Cymru administration propped up by the Conservatives.
Not formally a coalition, but I doubt Leanne’s voters in the Rhondda would make a distinction. This circumstance would be a de-facto coalition, a coalition in all but name.
But why would the Conservatives go along with such a seemingly-unequal deal?
The Conservative case
This part is fairly obvious. The Conservatives voted for Leanne Wood to be First Minister after 2016, and their leader’s centrepiece conference speech recently called for opposition parties to work together.
Andrew RT Davies praised the ‘immensely talented individuals’ from other opposition parties that he stood ready to work with ‘to deliver the change in government’ he thinks Wales needs.
He stated that above all else, he saw the need to remove the Labour Party from government in Wales as one of the chief tasks for him.
Why would he do this? The answer is that the Conservatives have failed over 20 years to remove Welsh Labour as the party of government.
All electoral strategies have been tried. Welsh Labour have endured in the contexts of the highs and lows of the Blair years, the lows of Gordon Brown in 2007, transitioning away from the ever-popular Rhodri Morgan, and having to implement austerity passed down from the Conservatives in Westminster.
Frankly, the Welsh Conservatives have little option but to work with Plaid Cymru if they ever want to form a government in Wales.
There is another reason they may be willing to do it. To say that the Conservative Party has an image problem in Wales is like saying cats have an image problem with mice.
To many Welsh voters, the Conservative brand is akin to mass industry closures, poverty, and Margaret Thatcher. It is anathema to the South Wales valleys constituency seats that are the power-brokers in Assembly electoral politics.
The ‘Welsh Conservatives’ brand offers electoral hope. If that new brand can be successfully differentiated from traditional Conservativism, they may have a chance.
If they work with Plaid Cymru, they have the chance to demonstrate that they are a different political force. And with 20 years of awful electoral returns in Wales, they have little other choice.
The Plaid Cymru Case
So it’s clear that the Welsh Conservatives are ready and willing to work with Plaid Cymru, in whatever form, in order to throw Welsh Labour out of government.
But is this – as Ifan Morgan Jones suggested to me on Twitter – ‘one way traffic’? I would disagree.
Clearly, from the 2016 example, Plaid Cymru are willing to work with the Conservatives up to the level of a formal coalition.
This still leaves open a Plaid Cymru minority government relying on the Conservative’s support in the Assembly for things like the First Minister nomination and budget votes.
There are a lot of reasons for Plaid Cymru to do this. In the suffocating world of the Welsh news media – or lack of it – publicity is often key.
Plaid Cymru learned this when they grabbed onto the SNP’s coat tails to get access to the 2015 General Election leadership debates.
The publicity afforded to Leanne Wood in those debates saw her ratings go through the roof, and the high profile she gained was probably the deciding factor in her Rhondda constituency win.
A no-coalition-deal with the Conservatives that made Leanne Wood First Minister would cut through to the public, and give her a platform for the next few years to make her case.
It could prove to be the electoral breakthrough that Plaid Cymru have always dreamed of.
Not to mention that 20 years of Labour government will be spurring on Plaid, too. There are lots of people in Plaid Cymru who agree with Andrew RT Davies’ notion that the only way of getting Welsh Labour out of power is by opposition parties working together to shake up the political landscape. They may well be right.
It doesn’t take a master political rune-reader to see that senior Plaid figures are pressing for this. At Plaid’s conference in March, Jonathan Edwards MP warned of ‘oblivion’ if Plaid Cymru tacked to the left.
At the same conference, Plaid’s leader at Westminster, Liz Saville-Roberts MP, said that the party should be willing to work with the Conservatives, saying that ‘something else has to be tried’.
There have been more recent updates, too. The BBC has reported leaks that ‘equidistance’ has become a key word in the circles that lead Plaid Cymru. That means placing Plaid an equal distance between Labour and the Conservatives, for maximum leverage.
So, it’s clear the ground is being laid within Plaid Cymru, too – albeit with opposition from the party’s left.
So the Conservatives are willing, and Plaid Cymru are willing (to an extent). But how exactly would a minority Plaid Cymru administration with Leanne Wood as First Minister, relying on Welsh Conservative votes, even work?
What possible common ground could the republican-socialist-nationalist-Remain group find with the monarchist-conservative-unionist-Leave group?
Quite a lot, as it happens. The Welsh Conservative detoxification project has often led to them calling for more NHS spending. There’s one area of common ground.
The Conservatives also support some elements of further devolution. There’s some more common ground.
On economic policy, both parties profess to want to see the Welsh Government do more to grow the private sector’s share of the economy in Wales. There’s some more common ground.
On top of this common ground, compromise can be built. A deal on supporting the devolution of some tax rates could be traded for commitments to cut said tax rates. Airport Duty, anyone?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there’s a growing will on both sides.
But will it happen?
In short: maybe. The numbers have to add up. One of the big questions at the next Assembly elections will be what happens to Ukip’s seats in the face of their collapsed polling numbers.
All of Ukip’s seats are of the regional list variety, meaning they would largely be split between Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives.
That could write Ukip out of the equation and make a deal even easier (despite Ukip being willing to work with Plaid either way).
One of the big questions is whether Labour or the Liberal Democrats can snatch any of those seats, making such a deal untenable.
But with Plaid and the Conservatives desperate after 20 years of failure, a recent history of working together on the 2016 roll call vote, Conservative willingness, and Plaid Cymru’s official position allowing anything short of a formal coalition, what we can be sure of is that a Plaid Cymru and Conservative deal is definitely on the cards.
Welsh Labour were just one seat away from being thrown out of power by a deal by the two parties and Ukip in 2016.
If those parties can take one more seat in 2021, a Tory-Plaid government of some form looks likely.