Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the significance of the loss of Leighton Andrews from the Welsh Cabinet
When such an experienced political hand as Peter Hain describes a ministerial resignation as “catastrophic for Welsh Labour” – his own party – you know that something pretty important has happened. There can have been no potential Cabinet resignation that the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, would have regretted more than that of Leighton Andrews. The question is, did he have any choice but to seek and accept that resignation?
Leighton Andrews’ passion for his constituency, estimable in every other regard, could not be allowed to override a conflict with his quasi-judicial functions as Education Minister, requiring him to adjudicate on school closures. The case for resignation rests, therefore, on a punctilious regard for the ministerial code that would undoubtedly play to the First Minister’s lawyerly instincts. Regard for the ministerial code is not to be lightly dismissed.
Yet the former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, seemed to suggest yesterday that there should have been a way through this, as happened when Rhodri Morgan himself transferred some of his own responsibilities to another Minister to allow him to campaign on a school issue in his own constituency. Rhodri Morgan resorted to the refereeing analogy saying that Mr Andrews had already been given a yellow card over his campaigning on another constituency interest, proposed changes to the Royal Glamorgan hospital. But if we pursue the football analogy it is doubtful whether, in the circumstances, an appeal would have seen him get more than a one match ban, if that.
The regret in Carwyn Jones’s response to the resignation letter, was undoubtedly real rather than formulaic, which makes it all the more mystifying that the search for a solution was not pursued for another day or two. In the event the Cabinet has lost its most incisive Minister and most acute strategic mind, not to mention the organiser of Mr Jones’s campaign for the leadership of Labour in Wales. He has been a Minister with a reputation for guts, independence, effectiveness and, above all, a sense of urgency not evident in every corner of Welsh Government.
In the world of Welsh education there will, of course, be a degree of schadenfreude. Those who have suffered from Mr Andrews’ sometimes withering criticisms, may breathe a sigh of relief, misjudged though that will be. Two years ago the IWA arranged for Mr Andrews to deliver a lecture at Cardiff University on school standards. The large lecture theatre was packed to capacity. As I walked in, a leading figure in local government alongside me gaped as he saw the assembled throng and whispered: “It’s just amazing how many people will turn out for a bollocking.”
Mr Andrews’s reputation went before him, and there were many in the sector who urged him to take a softer, scenic route towards change. But often these were the very same people who had failed to respond to the entreaties of previous Ministers, who had failed to deliver change themselves, failed to reform institutions, processes and performance with the urgency that Wales’s situation demanded and still demands. Ministerial impatience has rarely been more thoroughly justified.
He has brought about a substantial degree of institutional change in higher education, and has put in place a comprehensive set of measures to improve school performance. Yet the nature of educational reform is such that it is almost impossible to deliver step changes in performance in the short term. But if that improvement does materialise it will have been the result not of isolated initiatives but of a formidable programme of systemic reform that has demonstrated a healthy dislike of fudges.
The irony is that his resignation has come at the very point when his emphasis was beginning to change from institutional reform to a more outward looking agenda and, most likely, a different tone. The chastening fact is that Carwyn Jones will be hard-pressed to find as capable a Minister to make these reforms stick, in an area of policy that is far and away more important for Wales’s future than any other. The new Minister will have the formidable task of continuing to build Wales’s educational capacities just as money is getting ever more scarce.
Leighton Andrews’ departure from the Cabinet also points up the scarcity of executive expertise in the National Assembly – in all parties. The range of his experience is wider than almost anyone among the 60 members: a one time director of a UK campaign on homelessness, a Board member for an all-Wales housing body, the creator of his own business – a political consultancy at Westminster, and later in Cardiff – and a senior strategic role for the BBC in both London and Brussels.
It was this range of experience – in Cardiff, London and Brussels – that equipped him not only to be an effective Minister but also to be such an astute campaigner on so many fronts: the Yes campaign in the 1997 and 2011 referendums, the campaign against Burberry’s precipitate withdrawal from the Rhondda, and the election of Carwyn Jones as leader of Welsh Labour. It is a cruel irony that this campaigning bent has been the cause of his resignation.
If there is a silver lining to this resignation, it is that Mr Andrews is the kind of person who will undoubtedly put a period on the backbenches – even a short one – to very productive use. He has an eye for the big picture as well as systemic weaknesses, something that he could usefully apply objectively to Welsh government as a whole.