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Whether the Welsh like it or not, the independence debate is now front and centre

Public Affairs

By Siân Jones

Comparing Mark Drakeford to Winston Churchill might be a bit of a stretch, even for the most ardent admirers of the current First Minister of Wales. But that’s the question that politics watchers in Wales have been asking themselves over the past week. For over a year, in the name of battling the pandemic, Drakeford has been able to flex the muscles of Wales’ devolved powers to the maximum, whilst avoiding much of the media flack that has been aimed at his counterpart in Downing Street. But it now looks increasingly possible that he, like Britain’s wartime leader in 1945, might navigate his country through a major national crisis – and then lose an election.

The latest Wales YouGov poll, published last week, made unwelcome reading for Labour. It put them down to win just 22 seats in the May elections – seven less than their current tally. Long-held Labour seats such as the Vale of Glamorgan, the Vale of Clwyd and Wrexham were all projected to fall to the Conservatives. And worst still for Drakeford, the poll forecast that his marginal Cardiff West seat would be lost to Plaid Cymru.

While few in Cardiff Bay believe that Drakeford is really that likely to lose his seat, a Labour deal with Plaid Cymru looks increasingly probable. And rather than a loose ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, it may well require - as David Cameron put it in 2010, when negotiating his own coalition - a ‘big, bold and generous offer’ to Plaid Cymru. Drakeford has arguably been rolling the pitch for such a deal for some time, most recently with his recent statement that ‘the Union, as it is, is over’ and with the selection of a number of pro-independence Labour candidates.

Plaid Cymru’s leader, Adam Price has made it clear that he will seek a referendum on independence in the Coalition’s first term – something that is reportedly worrying Conservative Ministers in Westminster. However, an independence referendum is not the only bargaining chip on the table, and political grandstanding during election campaigns does not always survive the cut and thrust of coalition negotiations. Plaid would almost certainly lose a referendum if it were held in the first term of a Labour/Plaid administration, and Labour will likely see Price’s gambit for what it is - an opening position for negotiations. That’s not least because Price’s previous policy was to hold a referendum by 2030, after Plaid had had the chance to prove itself in office. And there are other political prizes up for grabs – such as a rotating First Ministership, or high-profile Ministerial portfolios - which Plaid could potentially extract as the price of stepping back from their first-term referendum demand.

Where does this leave the Welsh Conservatives? After a year in which they have seen a change of leader, a raft of candidate-related spats, taken the heat for the Westminster Government’s COVID mistakes, and been challenged from the right by Mark Reckless’s new Abolish the Assembly Party, their standing in the polls remains surprisingly strong. In last weekend’s virtual Welsh Conservative conference, Welsh Conservative Group leader Andrew RT Davies set out his electoral stall, which focussed squarely on jobs and Wales’ post-COVID recovery. He will be reckoning that most people in Wales who have seen their livelihoods devastated by the pandemic don’t care that much about devolution, independence, or whether the Barnett formula is fair to Wales or not.

The Conservatives are unlikely to be in a position to form a government in Wales after May 6th. A coalition with Plaid has been ruled out, not least because of the Conservatives’ need to shore up their devo-sceptic voter base. But Davies’ ‘vote Labour, get Plaid’ electoral pitch may well resonate with voters. Whilst backing for independence has grown significantly over the past year, it has yet to develop the head of steam that we are seeing in Scotland.

That could change, however, should Nicola Sturgeon succeed in her demands for a fresh referendum north of the border, and subsequently win it. If Scottish independence becomes a reality, we can expect the issue to be taken much more seriously in Wales. Take that together with sixteen and seventeen-year-olds voting for the first time, who are more likely to be pro-independence, and it’s clear that the agenda of Yes Cymru and its supporters will be front and centre for the foreseeable future. Whether the rest of the Welsh electorate want it to be, however, is another matter.