Reading the runes of Welsh politics

John Osmond reports on a new prediction about the timing of the forthcoming referendum on extending the powers of the National Assembly:

Richard Wyn Jones, the new Director of the Wales Governance Centre, put his head above the parapet at the IWA’s Devolution Decade conference this week and made some informed, if speculative, predictions about the next three years in Welsh political life.

Given the conference’s focus on devolution the centrepiece of his predictions was the timing of the forthcoming referendum on extending the Assembly’s powers. In the One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru the commitment is to hold a referendum at or before the next Assembly election, in May 2011. However, Professor Jones says that commitment will only be partially delivered. Instead, he predicts that the Assembly will vote shortly before the election, by the required two-thirds majority, that a referendum should be held.

Critically, this prediction is based on the assumption that in the next Westminster election, assumed to be held in about a year’s time, in the Spring of 2010, the Conservatives will win a comfortable majority and so there will be a Conservative Secretary of State for Wales. This means that the Assembly vote in favour of a referendum could be timed so as to require the Secretary of State for Wales to make a response in the run-up to the next Assembly election. It is specified in the 2006 Wales Act that the Secretary of State must decide to lay an order before both Houses of Parliament authorising a referendum or write to the First Minister in Cardiff outlining reasons for not doing so within 120 days.

This means that, if a Conservative Government is in power, we can expect a vote in favour of a referendum to be passed in the Assembly in late December 2010. This will force the Tory Government in London to make a decision on what to do about holding the referendum before the Assembly election, in early May 2011.

How, in these circumstances, would a Conservative government respond? Richard Wyn Jones’s advice is that, in its own interest, the government should, as he put it, ‘cut and run’ before the Assembly votes in favour of a referendum. That is to say, it should announce in favour of Part 4 of the 2006 Wales Act which would devolve further law-making powers to Cardiff Bay, but announce that it is amending it so that no referendum is required. His argument is that the Assembly’s current powers, under Part 3 of the Act to pass specific Measures (in effect, Acts – so long as the nod has been received from Westminster) is so close to full law-making powers (passing Acts without needing the nod from Westminster) that a referendum is not really needed.

Richard Wyn Jones says this would be the strategically sensible course for the Conservatives. However, he predicts they won’t adopt it. Instead, he says they will “muddle on” and then be forced by the Assembly to allow a referendum. As he put it, “It is not sensible politics for the Tories to allow themselves to be put in this position, but who among them will expend the political capital to avoid it?”

The Conservative’s present commitment is to maintaining the status quo, that is Part 3 of the 2006 Act. This is apparently on the advice of Lord Roberts of Conwy, who last July delivered a 20,000 word report to David Cameron on the The Way Ahead for Welsh devolution. So far this report has not been made public – and few Tories have been able to read it in full, apparently. Instead, a summary excerpt was released on 5 November last year, co-incidentally the same day that Barack Obama was elected President in the United States (a good day to bury news). Lord Roberts was, apparently, recommending another “in-depth examination” of the whole issue once the Conservatives were in power.

However, a two-thirds vote by AMs in favour of a referendum, just ahead of the next Assembly election, would overtake the possibility of yet another commission of inquiry. It would force the Conservatives into an choice between joining in with the call for a referendum (and working out which side they would take) or opposing one and uniting the rest of political Wales against them.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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