To vote or not to vote

Image copyright Welsh Government
Image caption An impression of what the new road could look like - but the proposed route is still disputed

Despite the critics of the M4 relief road within Labour ranks, the Welsh Government saw off an attempt by Plaid Cymru to hold a specific vote on the issue in the Senedd.

There may have been some cracks in the Welsh Labour machine of late with tensions over the death of Carl Sargeant, and even some lost votes at the assembly, but a bit of old-school discipline reasserted itself.

Critics like Lee Waters and Mick Antoniw are still pushing hard for a vote on the relief road once the public inquiry has come to an end.

You would have thought it deserved a vote of its own with a price tag north of £1bn making it by far the biggest single road project for any Welsh Government to sign off, but the Economy Secretary Ken Skates says it would set a dangerous precedent.

The official government position is that it is wrapped up in the budget process. This is what Mr Skates said in the debate: "On finance for this particular project, the Cabinet Secretary has already stated that the public inquiry will be allowed to report before any allocation decisions are made, and these allocation decisions will be reported to the National Assembly.

"And, where they need the approval of the National Assembly in subsequent budgets, that approval must and will be sought."

Party positions

So approval for subsequent budgets will be sought, but next year's budget has already been approved (with the help of Plaid) so does that mean work will be well under way before any is sought?

Plaid's Simon Thomas said there would still need to be a vote on any supplementary budget for next year because the capital funding for the project is in reserve.

Then Lee Waters, who despite wanting to kill off the road, said he was not in the business of voting down Labour governments.

It would also pose problems for Conservatives if they decided to support the scheme (they are refusing to say at this stage) as they would find themselves having to support a Labour budget which doesn't exactly tally with their role as the main opposition.

All of this is dependent on whether the inspector rules in favour when the public inquiry comes to an end.

At a briefing I was at before Christmas with Welsh Government officials, the timeline was for a decision by the cabinet late summer.

First minister's future

The ultimate question is whether this call will be made behind closed doors or in the full glare of a vote in the chamber? It appears to be hanging in the balance.

Another dimension to this is the sense that the road could become wrapped up in the future of Carwyn Jones as well.

Some thought any hopes for the road left the Senedd at the same time that the former economy minister Edwina Hart walked out for the last time in 2016.

Since then, the first minister has taken on the mantle, and any decision will inevitably become a test of his authority in forcing it through.

Indeed, a high profile vote on this very issue could be the ultimate symbol of that, which may partly explain why the opposition parties are keen for it to happen.

While talking about Carwyn Jones, the arrival of Jack Sargeant in Cardiff Bay next week will be a test of the softer communication skills from him, and his team.

There was little evidence of that last week with the failed attempt to embarrass Adam Price for not taking part in the Hywel Dda shake-up.

It had an aggressive feel at a time when, as one Labour insider told me, a gentler approach was needed at a very early stage in the consultation.

Although, when you have had to take as many body blows from the likes of Leighton Andrews in recent months, you can understand how much frustration there must be within the office of the first minister to get on the front foot.

My guess is that there will be no fireworks next week from Jack Sargeant as he gets his head around the new job.

One insider told me he expects the Labour group meeting to be a warm-hearted affair with everyone wanting to shake the hand of the new arrival.

The so-called money shot for the cameras will be the hand-shake with the first minister although somehow I suspect that will be engineered to take place well behind closed doors.

Health check

A final thought: the latest figures from Hywel Dda health board show that problems for the government do not wholly revolve around the Sargeant family.

This is a huge test of Vaughan Gething's "no bail-out" policy which relies on four health boards having to start making surpluses in the near future in order to pay back the government.

That would appear to be a long way off, if not fanciful, and increases the chances that these organisations will have their debts with the government written off, meaning even more money heading in the direction of the NHS.

This taps into what is surely the central question for any administration in Cardiff - how do you stop the Welsh Government spending so much on health and social care it risks the label of being a glorified a health authority.