The after-shocks continue to reverberate across Cardiff Bay following Leighton Andrews’ resignation as Education Minister a week ago. But there is still no real explanation for why he went. In the scheme of things a campaign over a primary school in a Minister’s constituency is a trivial issue to occasion the first such resignation in the history of Welsh democratic devolution.
Why was the apparent conflict of interest between Leighton Andrews’ Minsterial role and his defence of his constituency interests allowed to get out of hand in such a gratuitous way? I say ‘apparent’, because the word is deployed in Leighton Andrews’s carefully crafted resignation letter to First Minister Carwyn Jones:
“As you know, I have been and remain a passionate advocate of my Rhondda constituency. I regret that my commitment to my constituents may have led me to an apparent conflict which has led to difficulty for your government.”
Plainly, there was a disagreement between the two about whether a conflict had occurred sufficient to require Leighton Andrews to go. In his response Carwyn Jones made that clear:
“I recognise very well that there is sometimes tension between the role of a Government Minister and the demands of a constituency AM. The Ministerial code aims to define the boundaries between the two roles and, on this occasion, I believe those roles were confused.”
This disagreement prompted Rhodri Morgan to make a rare intervention, from the back seat as it were, to offer an account of what had happened. In his typically colourful way, the former First Minister suggested that Leighton Andrews had sailed close to the wind a few weeks earlier when he had suggested that services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant might be downgraded, requiring his constituents to travel to Cardiff. On that occasion Rhodri Morgan suggested that Carwyn Jones had handed Leighton Andrews a Yellow card.
Consequently, when just a few weeks later the Education Minister engaged in a prominent campaign alongside parents in defence of the threatened primary school in Pentre, he was handed a Red card. Rhodri Morgan was puzzled why Leighton Andrews had not operated in a softer key, offering support to the parents but keeping out of the public eye so far as campaigning was concerned.
The former First Minister suggested that Leighton Andrews might have followed what he had done himself some years ago when a primary school in his Cardiff West constituency was threated with closure – publicly handing over his judicial responsibility to another Minister, and so freeing himself to campaign to his heart’s content.
The matter becomes even more mystifying when the case of Pentre Primary School is looked at in more detail. For Rhondda Cynon Taf council is quite right to close it, following the Welsh Government’s directive that every means should be found to reduce surplus places in our schools. Pentre Primary School can hold 202 pupils but, according to the Council, only has 73 on its roll, the highest number of surplus places of any school in the Rhondda. Closing it would save £171,000, but the local authority intends to spend £1.5 million on improving Treorchy primary school which is only 0.9 miles away and where the Pentre pupils would go.
So we’re still left with the question of why Leighton Andrews almost willfully courted a conflict of interest and placed himself at odds with his First Minister. Some have suggested a conspiratorial motivation, with his seeking time on the back benches before engineering a return to the front rank in a more powerful role, even one that could supplant the First Minister himself.
That, I think, is far-fetched. I agree with Rhodri Morgan who rejected this notion in his Western Mail column at the weekend:
“Could Leighton Andrews use his period on the back benches to bring Oz-style faction politics to the Labour group in the Assembly, challenging Carwyn to an internal election in a year or two? Not in a million years! … Whatever the reason for the falling out between the two of them, it isn’t about political philosophies.”
So what is the explanation? The best one I’ve heard is that Leighton Andrews has been spooked by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. In March she announced she will be relinquishing her List South Wales Central seat to fight First-Past-the-Post for the Rhondda. At the time Leighton Andrews dismissed this as a “political stunt”, but recent events suggest he is taking the Plaid threat more seriously.
On the face of it this seems as inexplicable as any other part of this saga. The Rhondda remains one of Labour’s safest seats. It is true that Plaid won it in the first Assembly election, with 48.7 per cent of the vote against Labour’s 40.5 per cent. However, Leighton Andrews won it back in 2003 with a convincing 61.6 per cent, against Plaid’s 27 per cent, and the results have remained on a par ever since. In the 2011 election Leighton increased his share of the vote by 4.9 per cent to a commanding 63.2 per cent, against Plaid’s 29.5 per cent.
However, you should never under-estimate the levels of anxiety and insecurity that can grip politicians about their constituencies, especially when elections loom. The Rhondda has demonstrated in the past that if it feels ignored, sidelined or generally taken for granted it has other options than Labour.
Meanwhile, such Ministerial conflicts of interest are likely to recur. As Rhodri Morgan put it:
“During a period of public spending cuts, this is Wales’ $64bn question. Cabinet members are also local AMs. You don’t want voters to regret it when their local AM gets promoted to a ministerial job, for fear that ministers have to remain totally schtum over public service changes affecting their constituency. The spending cuts are going to carry on, so we have to resolve this issue in a grown-up way.”