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After a vote of ‘No Confidence’ – what now for Wales’ First Minister?

Cardiff Bay
By Tim Rogers
06 June 2024
Public Affairs

The image that will now be forever part of his legacy is the one of a tearful First Minister moved by the support of a backbencher who spoke up in his defence. The strain has been considerable and deeply felt.  

Vaughan Gething, the first black politician to become a national government leader in UK and Europe has been in office for 77 days. Throughout, he has been dogged with questions about a £200,000 donation he accepted for his leadership campaign from a businessman convicted of criminal charges relating to the illegal handling of waste on environmentally sensitive land in South Wales. 

Gething has vigorously defended his position, denying that he has breached any rules by accepting the donation. But questions persist, and media attention has deepened with further revelations about a £400,000 loan to the company, Dauson Environmental Group, by the Development Bank of Wales – an arm’s length body of Welsh Government – which came under the overall supervision of the Minister for the Economy in Wales when Mr Gething held that position.  

There is no suggestion that Gething or his team have done anything illegal or that any rules were broken and the businessman in question, David Neal, has pointed out that his companies have made several large donations in Welsh Labour since 2018, not just to Gething.  

An inquiry into future funding for the party in Wales has been set up, led by former First Minister and barrister, Carwyn Jones which will almost certainly consider what due diligence should be done regarding donations in future.  

The whole affair has clearly been a source of frustration for Mr Gething. While he received the overwhelming support of Labour MSs in the Senedd yesterday, two former Ministers were absent. Lee Waters, a former Transport Minister who led the introduction of the controversial 20mph speed limits across Wales and Hannah Blythyn, the former Minister for Social Partnership. She was sacked by Mr Gething for allegedly leaking confidential WhatsApp messages from Gething to ministers relating to the pandemic. An allegation she strenuously denies. Mr Waters and Ms Blythyn both called in sick to explain why they couldn’t attend the vote.  

Labour’s control of the 60 seat Senedd has been finely balanced. While it is the largest single party with 30 seats, the opposition parties together, have the same. Crucially, in a rare moment, the opposition all came together to support the motion of No Confidence which was brought by the Conservatives. The absence of the two former Labour Ministers meant the vote against Mr Gething was carried by 29 – 27.  

Mr Gething’s position is that the timing of the vote – in the middle of a UK general election campaign – was nothing more than political opportunism, an allegation the opposition parties deny.  

The verbal assault from MSs in the debate was focused and personal. It was not, they said, a vote of no confidence in the Welsh government. It was a vote against him. If he had handled the controversy over the donations differently – acknowledging he had made a mistake – they said the vote would never have been called.  

Two of those who spoke against him, Adam Price, the former leader of Plaid Cymru, and Paul Davies, a former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, had themselves been obliged to stand down because of earlier controversies.  

Despite losing the vote Gething insists he is determined to carry on regardless.  

A former trade union lawyer, he was clearly elated to achieve the office he has wanted for years. In his first speech as First Minister he said – while looking at pride towards his family in the public gallery – that it was a great moment for the advancement of black politicians to be the first to achieve the number one job.   

In the ‘No confidence’ debate, he said he thought that some of those who were determined to bring him down were motivated by some deep-seated discomfort at seeing a black man in such a position. It is a position he has no intention of giving up.  

So, what now? 

Crucially, Gething, who is known to be close to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, continues to enjoy his support. Sir Keir stating that he absolutely stands with him, leading critics to muse this is like the dreaded ‘Chairman’s endorsement’ for a beleaguered football manager, which will probably end in the usual way. We shall see. But not yet. The status quo is likely to be maintained during the general election campaign. But what then, after 4th July? 

Aside from the donation controversy, Gething has shown that he is determined to find his own way – developing new policies which in some cases have clashed with the former leadership, reigning back on the generally unpopular 20mph speed limits and suspending reorganisation of school holidays, which in the latter case, led to an angry outburst from the former First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who made his feelings about the revision very clear in the Senedd earlier this week.  

Gething is seen as a moderate who could work effectively with Starmer UK Government led by Sir Keir Starmer – bridging a divide and dispelling the tensions that have existed between a Labour Welsh Government and Conservative controlled Westminster in recent times.  

He has formidable challenges. Not least a budget stretched to breaking point. An NHS under siege and education standards to revive. He, like Sir Keir, believes that there must be a new focus on economic growth, job creation and reviving the fortunes of Welsh business. But will he get the opportunity? 

Where does a First Minister who has just lost a vote of no confidence go from here? 

Technically, he can carry on as the vote was not aimed at the Welsh Government. If matters deteriorate and the opposition stiffens, within his own party, as well as without – he will almost certainly face further discomfort.  

In the meantime, his political allies and supporters must build bridges of their own and quickly, particularly within Welsh Labour. Gething’s personal brand will need to be reborn. In other words, a charm offensive and a clear statement of his political aims and ambitions – to put him on the front foot and out of the trenches.  

Labour’s record in Wales will be scrutinised in the wider context of the UK general election. But whatever the critics say, the party in Wales has enjoyed overwhelming support longer than any other political party in government in Europe. Labour has been in power here for 25 years since the advent of devolution and has enjoyed a majority vote in Wales for more than century. It is a bastion of support for the party which shows no sign of evaporating any time soon.  

Vaughan Gething has put in the hard yards, as a former Health Minister and Economy Minister. But he is still in the thicket. In the speech he made to defend his position, against the no confidence motion, he spoke of brighter times ahead in a Labour Britain. If he wants to see them as First Minister in Wales he will need to convince the doubters, act now to shut down the controversy, and show that the journey for the country under his leadership will be the road best travelled.