Kirsty Williams plays an Oyster card in a wax jacket

Steve Brooks says the Welsh leader could emerge unscathed from a Liberal Democrat crash landing at the next UK election to take pole position

If pundits are to be believed, earlier this month UKIP caused an English earthquake which will shape the UK political landscape for years to come. Meanwhile, a quiet Welsh rumble went largely unheard. Kirsty Williams’ hint that she may seek a Parliamentary seat could have more far reaching implications for the UK Liberal Democrats than the rise of Nigel Farage.

As reported by David Williamson in the Western Mail here (7 May 2013) Kirsty Williams hinted that she may stand for Westminster at some point in the future.  She wouldn’t be the first AM to swap a Senedd pass for a Commons office, but her comments have already excited some in her party who see her as a future successor to Nick Clegg.

By all accounts Kirsty Williams is a force within the UK Liberal Democrats. At the party’s recent Welsh conference, Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander joked that when he came to Wales he always received a warm Williams’ welcome: a kiss, a cuddle and a rollicking about the Coalition.

While the Liberal Democrats are suffering electorally from their coalition with the Conservatives, doom-mongers predicting wipe-out at the next General Election look set to be proved wrong. Polls show that the party has shed the support it garnered from Labour during the Blair and Brown years. Nonetheless, recent elections demonstrate that the party can hold on where it has a historic base.

Despite attempts by groups within the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg now looks almost certain to pilot his party to a crash-landing at the next UK general election. The test then will be for the survivors to re-group, marshalled by a new leader who will need to rebuild the party with a new identity and possibly prepare it again for government.

Post-2015 Kirsty Williams may be an attractive offer for the leadership. A politician deemed to straddle the ‘urban’ social democratic and social liberal wings of the party, she also has an appeal to more traditional, rural based liberals.  The political equivalent of an Oyster Card in a wax jacket. While no fan of the Welsh Labour Government, her awkward photocall with Cheryl Gillan, and her role scuppering a rainbow coalition with the Tories and Plaid hint at her preferred political direction.  Her trump card is that she was absent from the scene of the coalition crime.

A recent Lib Dem blog showed how Kirsty Williams was the only UK party figure outside of the Westminster government who was gaining popularity amongst members. The expected battle between Tim Farron and Ed Davey is unlikely to set the Liberal Democrats alight, never mind the country at large. In contrast, Williams isn’t tainted by the Tories as Davey is, and is unlikely to be overshadowed by the bigger beasts in Westminster like Farron would be. At a time when the Liberal Democrats risk falling further behind Labour and the Conservatives on women in Parliament, a Williams leadership could send a strong signal that the party wants to change.

Of course, she will need a coalition to be Deputy Prime Minister. With the opinion polls still precariously unpredictable, another hung parliament remains a possibility.  Whether Labour can win an outright majority remains to be seen, but the party has avoid its traditional first-term-in-opposition civil war. The Tories, without an outright election win since 1992, retain a hunger for power that should not be underestimated.

There are barriers on the road to Westminster, not least the self-described difficulties facing mums in front-line politics. With three-young children, Williams describes her ‘prenup agreement’ with her husband as including the promise she would never ‘go to London’. However, she wouldn’t be the first Liberal Democrat to apologise for making a promise before a union that couldn’t be kept. That such problems still exist for women in 2013 is perhaps a sad reflection on how we organise our archaic Parliament.

The second barrier is more political. What seat should she contest and what becomes of the Welsh Liberal Democrats? Brecon and Radnor would seem to be the obvious choice. Whether a vacancy exists depends on Roger Williams, the sitting Liberal Democrat MP, retiring and making way.

However, if she went to Westminster a Welsh Liberal Democrat void would be left in the National Assembly. Aled Roberts would almost certainly be expected to throw his hat into the ring. A north-Walian Welsh speaker, he has experience of having ‘run something’ as leader of Wrexham council. Eluned Parrott, AM for South Wales Central, would also be a contender.

The biggest barrier remains Kirsty Williams herself. She’s a leader known to make her own decisions. No doubt the stirring support for her within the party is flattering. But only time and Kirsty Williams will tell.

Steve Brooks is Director of the Electoral Reform Society Wales. He tweets in a personal capacity from @stephenbrooksUK

11 thoughts on “Kirsty Williams plays an Oyster card in a wax jacket

  1. If Kirsty Williams would rather be Deputy Prime Minister than Deputy First Minister, that’s her own choice, but apart from the briefly-mentioned gap she’d leave behind in Wales, this story has nothing whatsoever to do with Welsh politics. How about some ‘Welsh affairs”, IWA, instead of reinforcing the London obsession?

  2. Don’t know about future DPM, but she is without a doubt the best leader in the National Assembly.

  3. A talented politician, campaigner and debater but what does she really stand for? Where has she positioned the liberal dems in Wales? The coalition has made life difficult as the article says but it should have been an opportunity for her to do some major thinking and major delivering. There was nothing to lose! Along with Carwyn and some others, perhaps it’s all too easy in the Assembly. A change might be good, but might also find her out. Perhaps even crossing the floor, she’d be a fine Welsh Labour leader…

  4. Interesting times ahead at the next election with one or two UKIP AMs. Would Carwyn form a government with Plaid or LibDems? It’s quite likely that Labour would be in bed with LibDems in Westminster…..may be convenient to do the same in Wales.

  5. Dear Mr G Jones, The IWA having just completed its 25th year, it comes as something of a surprise to be accused of ‘reinforcing a London obsession’. Another first!

  6. Kirsty leaving for London would be a massive loss to Welsh politics. Fingers crossed it won’t happen!

  7. John, True, she is the best leader in the Assembly but her party is unique in having more talent in the Assembly than in its Welsh Paliamentary seats. Compare the best of the Labour MPs with their Ministers in Wales. Oh dear. Shows where the Party’s priority still lies.

  8. This piece is about six months out of date. the assured and informed performances are something of the past, with the Lid Dem leader falling over her words and losing head-to-heads with Carwyn as often as RT.

    We got an insight into her thinking recently when she decided to kick Bethan Jenkins when she was down – a needless act that no other party indulged in and played out very badly both inside and outside the bubble, proving that the party could mix it up nasty. It was the clearest indication yet of a leader panicked at the prospect of her party staring into the electoral abyss come 2015/16. Peter Black must be looking over his shoulder, too, having only just hung onto his seat last time around.

    The Lib Dems should do the sensible thing and shift Kirsty sideways and give her job to Eluned Parrott – by far the best performer in her party at present.

  9. I’m not at all surprised by these “revelations”. Her recent actions have shown she puts her ambition first in her list of priorities. The Liberal Democrats here in Wales and elsewhere are not short of ruthless, power hungry careerists, who will stop at nothing to gain power – Peter Black springs to mind.
    As for the “void” in Wales left by her departure, that assumes the Lib Dems will win a similar number of seats in the Senedd. No guarantee of that. Lib Dems may well lose several, probably to Plaid Cymru. So she can go off to London more or less unnoticed. Black no doubt will go for the “leadership” in Wales, with very few AMs left to lead.

  10. Louise – KW puts her ambition first? I’m shocked. That’s so unlike every other politician in the Assembly. I’d like to order whatever it is you are smoking. Anyone in Wales who would “stop at nothing to gain power” is hardly like to join the Lib Dems are they? Where would they go, do you think? Is that such a hard question? Which party has been in power continuously since 1999?
    Colin – Eluned Parrott? Reminds me of a saying by Disraeli: “There are exceptions to all rules but it seldom serves to take the advice of an opponent”.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy