Did Leanne spook Leighton?

John Osmond probes the reasons behind the resignation of the Education Minister from the Welsh Cabinet

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.”

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.

12 thoughts on “Did Leanne spook Leighton?

  1. Very interesting!!. I wonder what the position of the FM would have been IF the Princess of Wales hospital in Bridgend had been ‘ set up’ for a major reduction in services?? Would he have been able to remain on the side, as clearly it would have been very unpopular,and he is a politician at the end of the day. Rhodri Morgan is correct in that the 7 years of ‘famine’ are with us,after the 7 years of ‘feast’, and where did all that money go??

  2. I dispute the oft-made statement that the Rhondda is “one of Labour’s safest seats”. Look at the stats for both the Assembly and Westminster and the Labour majorities are generally consistently less than in many other Valleys/South Wales seats, say Torfaen or Blaenau Gwent (before the whole Peter Law thing anyway). More importantly Plaid’s consistent presence in the place makes it generally more believable that the seat might not be won by Labour (in this day and age) than many other seats that are nominally less safe. Who besides Labour could one ever envision winning, say, Pontypridd or Cardiff South? There’s no credible opposition to Labour accross much of south Wales. Granted, Rhondda is still a safe Labour seat by any standards; but by the standards of Labour’s historic dominance of South Wales it’s far from the safest.

  3. If the Leanne factor is in any way real, it shows shockingly little faith in his own government’s ability to win the 2016 Assembly elections on its own merits.

    Can you imagine a UK cabinet minister, indeed one of the two or three most senior cabinet ministers (Hague, Osborne, May), resigning THREE years ahead of an election due to fears of losing ‘Lichfield Metropolitan East’ and his/her own seat? Rubbish, if they had any gumption they’d believe that their policies and record would prevail and that the best (only) place to do that is around the cabinet table. It would be tantamount to accepting moral defeat in the policy/record debate three years before it is even held…

    Can that surely be the case?

    Would Leighton Andrews/Labour value the holding of the Rhondda over the massive hole his resignation leaves in the collective moral fibre of the Labour government’s policy, programme and sense of purpose?

    As I said, there’s no need to look at this in the abstract, just look at the Westminster proxy.

    Of course, there is a simpler explanation. He just cocked up… trying to push two envelopes too far, to the point where he made his government look stupid. Sometimes the cock-up theory does actually happen, despite our perennial obsession (myself included) for the conspiracy.

  4. “As I said, there’s no need to look at this in the abstract, just look at the Westminster proxy.”

    Is that an oxymoron? If one analyses a cognate situation and considers it a proxy is one still working in the abstract, inasmuch as the abstract is pure speculation?

    Apologies for the loose reasoning if you believe it is!

  5. This is not just down to pupil numbers that have been sloppily picked up from other incorrect media reporting (100 not 73 pupils) the major factor is a safe route to school for pupils. This reporter must have seen the LAs proposals to make such a bold statement as this on the closure of Pentre Primary, perhaps he’d like to share this with the parents who will have to encounter this journey everyday as RCT have not provided the vital information. Or has he not even bothered to look at Pentre Primary but focused on the political angle. If so don’t incorrectly comment on proposals for school reorganisations.

  6. Permit me to clarify the situation. Firstly, there are over 100 pupils on roll at Pentre Primary School not 73 as widely reported by the BBC. Secondly the issue for parents has never been about surplus places but the safety and well being of our children.

    It is the political opponents of Leighton Andrews who have elected to focus on the issue of surplus places cynically disregarding the specific circumstances pertaining to our school. Indeed, the very term ‘surplus places’ is sufficient to provoke a furious and enthusiastic response devoid of any objective analysis of the situation.

    The welfare and safety of children should be of paramount importance in any circumstance and I am naive enough to believe Leighton Andrews is of the same opinion.
    Please refer to our blog if you are interested in understanding what this issue is really about rather than mindlessly reacting to the the sound bite of “Surplus Places”.

    Phil Rowlands
    Pentre Action Group

  7. Phil Rowlands: if you are looking for any piece from John Osmond that isn’t a direct or indirect attack on the Labour party or an individual minister, or if you expect anything other than Nationalist cheer leading from him then you are indeed naive.

  8. Having read your article I feel that your facts are slightly inacurate I have noticed that people have tried to put you right on some of these. However, a few facts still remain that need atention. If you are interested in making comments on communities and their problems it would be good measure to gain all facts and get out into the area and research your subject thoroughly. 0.9 miles for Pentre Primary children to Treorchy School is not quite correct as that distance is taken from one school to another. It is not the full distance that pupils have to travel. For instance, from the bottom of the Pentre area it is double that distance. Pentre is a very poor area and unfortunately the majority have no cars. As a result many would have to walk to the school along un unsafe road. your facts are inacurate as mentioned but there are many more factors which need to be taken into account when considering school reorganisation. Your article was obviously political and you should not have strayed from that and by doing so getting your facts mixed up. It is unclear what you are hoping to achieve?

  9. I think a combination of the Leanne factor and cock-up is the most likely explanation.

    But this ‘affair’ also highlights a major flaw in the so called ‘Palimentary’ model of government.

    An AM or MP is elected to represent their constituents. When they are appointed to another job, such as Minister (or even a Political Consultant, as in Westminister), they have to employ others to do their elected job. For me this is ‘Undemocratic’.

    Members ought to be doing the job they have been elected to do. To use that vote to claim authority to give them an extra job as Minister is a form of electoral corruption.

    Indeed, I argue that the Executive (Government) should have it’s own specific mandate and should not include local representatives doing two jobs. We all know that whether they be AMs or MPs they’re not able to do the two jobs themselves. Some MPs/Minisiters (Assembly rules are tighter) have even more than two jobs, none of which they can give sufficient attention to, and none of which, as a result, can they do adequately, let alone well.

  10. @Jon Jones

    Critique is not an attack but a method of analysis. Discuss

    The dilemma at the heart of Leighton Andrew’s decision is that the Administration is drawn from the legislature. In the United States, the administration is run by a directly elected official, the President, and the legislature is elected to a separate body, Congress. The separation of powers thus resolves that particular difficulty.

    In the absence of a directly elected executive president in Wales, this is a dilemma that is not constitutionally resolvable under the current system. However, I have reservations about the way that Leighton Andrews has handled his responsibilities as a Minister. The implications of his position are that he introduced a policy that he regarded as being appropriate for implementation throughout Wales, just not in his backyard; a sort of Ministerial nimbyism if you like. However, the idea that a minister cannot be relied upon to carry out government policy for fear of damage to his electoral prospects undermines the efficacy of representative government.

    It’s possible to stand back and try and be philosophical about this by saying that the Assembly is an historically young political institution and is still finding its way in terms of learning what democratic Government means in Wales. But if Welsh democracy is to achieve anything, it should be that a concept of what is good for society at large, even when the meaing ot that is contested, is more than just the sum of constituency interests. And that is what we have a right to expect of an elected Government and its ministers, to represent that principle and put it into practice. It that means a reduction in someone’s particular majority, then take the hit. Otherwise don’t introduce the policy in the first place.

  11. Strangely enough Rhobat I almost agree with you. I certainly have, over a ten year period, criticised my local Council for failing to amalgamate small schools and build centralised medium sized schools. Many people are willing to demonstrate against the closure of rural schools but few realise the expense of keeping them open and that small schools have a downside for pupils as far as social growth and opportunities are concerned. The problem always has been that councillors were dependent on just tens of voters for their cherished positions……it was impossible to support the closure of small schools until they were made to by Leighton Andrews.

    What is forgotten however is that the size of the school was not supposed to be the only criterion on which the decision was made; there always was an opening for special pleading. You may remember that Leighton Andrews stepped aside when it came to dealing with the matter of Treganna school and the EM school up the road a year or so ago. Carwyn Jones made the decision instead….he vetoed closure.

    The article that I commented on is just naked S*** stirring and nothing else.

  12. There was no need for LA to panic. Whenever Leanne Wood is put under the slightest scrutiny she struggles because Plaid only elected her because she was the candidate most keen on independence and she was able to rouse the loudest rabble. Whenever she goes live on telly her ineptitude is only masked by the noisy student support she takes with her.

    In a head to head LA would make LW look like the student room radical she is.

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