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Fairy tales

Betsan Powys | 19:31 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

One of the favourite bed-time stories at home used to be the one about a dragon who lives very happily on a mountain, leaving the villagers alone because he has no interest in things like breathing fire and fighting. He has one friend, a little boy who likes to listen to his stories.

Then one day, the villagers find out he's there. They're convinced he's a terrible menace because that's what dragons are. They invite a brave knight to come along and slay him. That's fine by the knight because that's what he does and anyway he's been told of the many terrible things the dragon has apparently done.

What to do? The boy works it all out.

The knight and the dragon pretend to have a big battle. The villagers are happy because they get to see a fight. The brave knight is happy because he gets a) to win and b) all the glory. The dragon is happy because for the price of a black eye or two, the villagers are happy to leave him where he is because they tell themselves that he's learned his lesson and frankly, he was never any trouble anyway.

In other words, the boy works out that it's not how you get there that's important. It's what you're left with at the end that really matters.

Over the past week or so, there've been several versions doing the rounds of the tale of the Assembly election, the campaign battles to come - both mock and real - and how deals and alliances will later unfold.

Now you're not daft. You know that when politicians tell us journalists a story, it's usually because they want to see it reported somewhere and so they tell us the story they want you to hear. Since, unlike story-time at home, you're not 6 and 7 years old and since you've worked out a long time ago that everything you're told isn't absolutely true, I'll fill you in.

Sitting comfortably?

Let's start with Labour. In the past Labour have said that if they get a majority on May 5th, they will govern alone. Seems obvious. But what, realistically - not just literally - constitutes an outright majority? At what point does an outright majority become a working majority? Would Carwyn Jones seek to go it alone on 31 seats? Or given AMs can sometimes be ill, or find they don't agree with the party line on a particular issue and won't vote for it, or are caught on a train between north and south, does an outright majority really mean 32 or 33 seats?

The message from Labour is that if they win 31 seats out of the 60, the party will expect the leader to ditch any talk of deals and form a Labour-only government. And if that's what the party expects, that's what the party gets if - if - Labour get to 31 seats.

Is that what the leader wants? There are plenty who suspect that if that 32 or 33 proves just out of reach, Mr Jones' next best option would be a tally of 29 seats on the night - a good result for Labour but with the door open to striking some sort of deal that delivers a clear, comfortable majority.

Would that deal be with Plaid?

One Plaid MP, Jonthan Edwards, has come out and said it bluntly: "the elephant in the room for Labour in Wales is - what can they really offer Plaid Cymru?" Labour can't put pressure on ministers in London to deliver anything this time round. They don't have any.

But others - in particular, others who were fully paid-up backers of the deal with Labour back in 2007 - are saying just the same, just as vehemently, if a lot less publicly for now. People who you'd have put money on being fans of One Wales Two are saying they'd need some convincing, come May, it would be the right thing to do, even if opposition would be the price to pay.

The recent Labour attacks on Ieuan Wyn Jones personally have incensed Plaid (precisely as intended, of course). "It may not be people sitting round the cabinet table in Cardiff but it's still senior figures in Labour" said one Plaid source who added the party would have to be absolutely clear that Labour could offer Plaid something worth having - or walk away - regardless of the arithmetic.

Would Plaid talk to the Conservatives? Ieuan Wyn Jones has already said given the spending cuts being implemented by the Conservatives in Westminster, that would be "very, very difficult". Privately the Tories raise an eyebrow and suggest Plaid would find it far less difficult than they're admitting out loud.

Why would Plaid talk to the Tories? Ok, it's unlikely said one well placed Tory source. It's not very near the top of the list of likely deals. But if Plaid came calling and if Nick Bourne was keen on a deal and if he asked the Secretary of State whether the 'missing' £300m from the Welsh budget every year was the price of a term in government in Wales, wouldn't she be more than happy to pass on that request to the Treasury? Certainly, came the response.

And what about that other partnership, Lab-Lib? Labour sources in Westminster reckon it would make sense. If the maths works out, Labour would have to give very little in return for kicking Plaid into touch. Bear in mind too, said a well-placed Liberal Democrat, that it would suit Ed Miliband down to the ground to forge an alliance of some kind with the Lib Dems in Wales. If it doesn't work out in Scotland, then he needs somehow to persuade the Lib Dems that there is an alternative, before the Tory/Lib Dem coalition at UK level "ossifies".

All four Welsh dragons will be breathing fire over the next few weeks. Some battles will be real, some for show. They'll also be telling me, and you, a fair few fairy tales. Just bear in mind that what will really matter for the next five years is how the story ends - and I don't think any of them are sure just yet.


  • Comment number 1.

    Labour and Carwyn Jones are being far too cautious if they are looking for 32/33 seats as their 'safety margin'.

    If things go as roughly as expected and the Tories and Plaid are about equal in number of seats, then Labour would be safe on 29/30 seats.

    Well could you see the Tories and Plaid ever 'teaming up' against Labour? And even if they did they would still be maybe 4/5 Lib-Dem seats short of even approaching a majority

    No, Plaid Cymru must be removed from coalition power in the Assembly. They have asked for, and been given far too much in this one-sided coalition. The tail really has been wagging the dog.

    Its time for Labour to call Plaid's bluff, and the forthcoming election gives us a splendid opportunity to end the bad influence that Plaid has had in the past few years. I want to see a responsible and thoughtful government running the Assembly for the next 5 years. A government operating without the half-baked notions and loose cannon mentality of Plaid Cymru.

    Come on Carwyn..."He who dares wins"

    (With apologies to Del Boy)

  • Comment number 2.

    I think the story you're referring to is "The Reluctant Dragon", which I enjoyed a lot when I was a kid. I hadn't thought of it as a metaphor for Welsh politics before.

    If the Lib Dems fortunes in Wales in any way mirror what's been happening to them in England, they might not actually win enough seats to offer Labour a realistic choice. I'm not sure what policies there are that Plaid and the Tories agree on, other than a shared dislike of Labour and a desire to cull badgers, but it could happen...

  • Comment number 3.

    Dear Madam,

    Dragons & Knights in a tale of chivalry, perhaps you should remain in the early learning area of your public library. As the way the world was won may upset your pretty little head and we would not want that to happen now would we.

  • Comment number 4.

    At 21:58pm on 21st Mar 2011, Swindon Addick wrote:

    “...... I'm not sure what policies there are that Plaid and the Tories agree on...”

    They probably both agree that they would like their own leader to be First Minister. Though, realistically I don’t see Nick B getting a go at it. I can’t see Plaid agreeing to serve under a Tory (“Plaid won’t join a Tory led coalition” was the line last time I believe) but the Tories just might serve under a Plaid Cymru leader to get their hands on government. That would be a tremendous coup for them.

  • Comment number 5.

    If the tories join a coalition with Plaid they are dead, if they join a coalition under plaid they are dead and buried.

  • Comment number 6.

    At 23:41pm on 21st Mar 2011, Nospin wrote:

    “If the tories join a coalition with Plaid they are dead, if they join a coalition under plaid they are dead and buried.”

    Nevertheless, they were willing to do it last time, irrespective of your opinion.

  • Comment number 7.

    To describe the four political leaders as "... four Welsh dragons" reminded me of Penman's book "Here Be Dragons" in which Llewelyn was without a doubt a dragon ...

    ... on reflection, Betsan could have better described them as Mock Turtle's, possibly dancing to a Lobster Quadrille. Might Betsan entitle her memoirs "Betsan's Adventures in Wonderland" .......

    If the Conservatives even voiced the prospect of getting into bed with Plaid Cymru it would confirm to voters that Wales politics has reached the cynical point of no-return. The Plaid intention is to separate Wales from the Union ...... I do not remember the Conservative Party ever voicing such an objective.

  • Comment number 8.

    Yet the Rainbow coalition deal was drawn up, with the Conservatives joining a Plaid led cabinet. Talks were very well advanced when the Liberal Democrats had their little wobble. So its conceivable but not very likely it could happen again.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well Mr. Thomas, if the Conservatives joined with Plaid I will look for another place to lodge my vote.

    Betysan wrote above ...

    In other words, the boy works out that it's not how you get there that's important. It's what you're left with at the end that really matters.

    ... I disagree with the boy, how you do it is very important, it is about ethics and morality ...... it is important the truth is told at every step of the political way; and the reality is, Plaid has no natural partners in Wales politics, its aims are at odds with every other party.

  • Comment number 10.

    9. At 08:23am on 22nd Mar 2011, John Tyler wrote:

    “..... Plaid has no natural partners in Wales politics, its aims are at odds with every other party.”

    Early days John, early days.

  • Comment number 11.

    I have a copy of their constitution Glyndo, it is definitely at odds; but ...... have Plaid recruited Betsan's "boy" I wonder, can we expect an epiphany that changes its political direction to Wales within the Union, is the split we have seen within the party because its politicians have tasted power and are prepared to compromise their .....

  • Comment number 12.

    Firstly, although the libdems will lose votes they may not lose more than one or two seats, leaving them with more than enough to top up Labour in a coalition.

    Whatever anyone might like to think, Wales is different to Westminster: the Libdems are not as "toxic" a partner to Labour here.

    Plaid has just enjoyed a term in government which has seen them deliver a further step down the devolutionary road to independence. A new and unnecessary Welsh Language Measure to keep their core supporters happy. A statutory requirement for Welsh councils to provide Welsh Medium schools on demand. A north-south air link and through express train links to "join" North and South Wales. Sundry grants to all things "Welsh Language".

    Labour supporters are thinking that enough is enough. Libdems are looking like a much preferable option.

  • Comment number 13.

    Well as a Plaid supporter I will also be looking to jump ship if the leadership does a deal with the Tories, I didnt join Plaid to open the back door to the very people who are the cause of many of Wales' problems.

  • Comment number 14.

    The realpolitik suggests strongly that Plaid won't deal with the Tories.....and should it rule it out pretty pronto....

  • Comment number 15.

    #1 and #17

    Plaid has done Labour two big favours in government. One it pushed them into a successful referendum that they would not have had the nerve to call themselves - but they are glad now they did. Two it got them to set up a Commission into financing Wales that found Wales was underfunded on the criteria used in England by £300-400 million. They are finding that useful to know too. So despite its tendency to come out with flaky ideas, Plaid has made a huge positive contribution to the government. However, there's no gratitude in politics and I don't suppose they will be in the next one, or at all until they get a strong leader and pick up some more votes.

    Half of Plaid don't believe in full independence either; they are a coalition of views and interests like other parties. So of course they could form a coalition with the Welsh conservatives. The Tories are a coalition too and if Nick Bourne is an ideological Thatcherite, I am Old King Cole.

  • Comment number 16.

    On past experience Labour will need closer to 35 seats before they show any sign of confidence in running the Assembly. During this current administration two Labour AMs (Neagle and Sinclair) were both absent simultaenously for a considerable period. With forced absences due to ill-health etc or Betsan states where AMs disagree with their own party policy it could make life very difficult for Labour. Let's not forget too that we don't know who the 18 or so new AMs are nor how they are going to behave in their new found roles.


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