Never has an Assembly Committee been so inaccurately named but been so timely in its creation as the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee which was founded last June. No sooner than it was up and running than it should have simply become the Brexit Committee of the Assembly because that is, de facto, what it has become. All of its cross cutting work has focused on one particular set of external affairs, and all of the anticipated additional legislation, will also come from the Brexit process. Quite how much that will be is also something of a moot point since, as the First Minister made repeatedly clear when the Committee met on Monday, communications and relations are so bad between the two ends of the M4 that there is absolutely no clarity and transparency around the process even from a basic legislative timetabling perspective. But Committee for Brexit it is, nevertheless.
Form following function was clearly also something which concerned Committee Chair David Rees, who wondered whether now was the time to look at the structure of Welsh Government and introduce a Brexit Secretary for Wales in the same way that the Scottish Government and UK Government had. “Now is not the time” was the response from First Minister Carwyn Jones, unintentionally echoing the view of Theresa May on a second Scottish referendum back in the period where she seemed to speak for the UK and have her finger on the pulse of what sort of public votes the country actually wanted.
Whether or not Carwyn’s use of her words was deliberate is hard to gauge, but when he explained that no change in portfolios was required because of the experience embedded in current post holders and the delicate process of negotiation it did almost sound like he was leaning toward concluding that he had a “strong and stable” team in place that would deliver the best for his country during the Brexit discussions.
Which naturally make you wonder if there is no reshuffle required for a Brexit minister then there why is any sort of reshuffle of the Welsh Government front bench required at all. After all, it has only been little over a year since the government was formed and there have been no monumental screw ups by any minister. Nothing necessitates a change.
But, of course, that does not stop many in the bubble of politics from speculating one is needed. It tends to happen most Julys and genuinely usually grows out of one thing: the narrowness of the media and others in the way they analyse politics and always stress individuals above structural and policy issues. It’s the “showbiz for ugly people” equivalent of evictions from the Big Brother house. People too disinterested in policy, delivery and focus usually tend to speculate endlessly about personalities and reshuffles because it’s the easier, frothier part of politics.
Those who assume Carwyn will automatically reshuffle this summer also usually point to other bogus arguments. They talk of Committee chairs rotating and what that means for the personnel of government, when the two issues are absolutely unrelated. They also talk of reshuffles being an annual summer event like Wimbledon, garden parties and hose pipe bans. They are so not. The Welsh Government established in May 2011 was not changed until March 2013 – almost two years later – when pretty much people just moved around and Mark Drakeford became Health Minister. The next two personnel changes came about when ministers departed – Leighton Andrews in June 2013 and Alun Davies in July 2014 – not because of any major need to reshuffle.
The next big changes came in September 2014 when Jeff Cuthbert telling the First Minister he intended to stand down in 2016 led to departures for him, John Griffiths and Gwenda Thomas in a reshuffle intended to bring younger blood to the fore. Indeed, looking back at the five years of the last Assembly it’s clear that Carwyn’s style is to change his governments voluntarily only 18-20 months after appointing post holders. Those talking of summer shakes are more wishful than logical in their thinking.
Let me return to the substance of the virtues of continuity. The point the First Minister makes in relation to a Brexit Secretary is a sound one for the government as a whole. Strength and stability may not have been a phrase he would have chosen to use, but it is one which has meaning, not least for himself and serving the full decade he promised to do when first elected as First Minister in 2009. For the same reasons that Carwyn should ease off changing the shape of his government, he should ease off changing the personnel too. And, while he’s at it, he should be thinking long and hard about vacating his office when the Brexit negotiations aren’t concluded. In two consecutive elections he has proven to be the Labour Party’s best asset in Wales. Walking away from that at a pivotal moment may not be in his or the national interest.
Theresa May’s wisest moment this year was when she said “Now is not the time.” Her problem was that she didn’t heed her own advice. Will Carwyn do the same?
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