Stephen Crabb and the increasingly slim chance of a Welsh PM

Ben O’Keeffe explains why the UK’s changing constitution makes Stephen Crabb’s shot at the UK’s top job increasingly difficult.

It now seems obligatory for all journalists to follow the name Stephen Crabb with the phrase, “a potential successor as Conservative Party Leader”. The furore following his recent appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary has led to the UK media convincing themselves that the rising stock of Crabb means he is Conservative leader in waiting.

But, I’m not so sure his path to the top of the Tory tree (you know, like the logo) is as likelyas we are being led to believe, or at all politically possible.

Crabb-soloutely fabulous

Let’s start with the good stuff.

He is popular. Crabb hasn’t upset any of the major players in Westminster and although close to the PM, seems to be comfortable moving between the various factions of the Conservative Party.

Although over the last few months his legacy as Welsh Secretary has been looking increasingly precarious as he struggles with the new devolution settlement for Wales, he’s seen to have done a pretty good job overall while in Tŷ Gwydyr. Regardless, he has been somewhat rescued from any association with the faltering Wales Bill, as his move to the Department for Work and Pensions will make arguing with Carwyn about a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction a distant memory.

He also inherited a department on the brink of implosion. But again, despite it being very early days, he seems to be rolling with the punches. His appointment was met with almost universal praise by other Tories and the media alike, and his first act in his new job was to do away with the widely condemned cuts to Personal Independence Payments.

Crabb has a back story that busts Tory stereotypes too. From humble beginnings on a council estate in Pembrokeshire he moved to London, where he worked in the charity sector.

Seems like a shoe-in for the next Tory leader, right? I’m not so sure.

The destruction of his natural Crabb-itat

Crabb’s chances of Tory party leadership look to be scuppered by the UK’s increasingly fragmented constitutional arrangement.

Although they have been very cautious in using it thus far, the new English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) procedure in Westminster is going to restrict the effectiveness of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs in the legislative process.

As the name would indicate, EVEL effectively ensures English MPs are the only ones voting on legislation that is exclusively relevant to England. There is also a procedure which allows Welsh MPs to join in on Welsh and English only legislation.

It was introduced to try and appease those who felt that MPs from the devolved nations were unfairly able to vote on matters affecting England; whilst English MPs couldn’t vote on a range of matters in the devolved nations.

At the moment EVEL has only been used a handful of times, but as we see greater devolution, the number of areas in which EVEL is relevant is going to increase. Equally as the EVEL process is refined and becomes more familiar it will surely be used more readily.

And herein lies the problem. Having a UK party leader or PM setting a legislative agenda on which swathes of it s/he cannot vote is inconvenient at best.

Even if the EVEL process doesn’t become a mainstay in the journey of every piece of legislation, having a leader that couldn’t vote on significant bits of his party’s proposals affords the opposition some potent ammunition.

Think about it, having Crabb stand up in the Commons as a Tory leader and talk about the NHS when it is completely devolved will inevitably lead to a fair few snorts of derision from his own backbenchers, never mind those on the opposite side of the House.

Even if Conservative party membership and whoever else likes the look of Crabb – or for that matter any non-English MP – as their leader, it would tactically be very difficult to sustain a leader whose party seems so keen to restrict the power of MPs from the devolved nations.

Crabb’s opposite number and old Wales Office adversary Owen Smith is also touted for great things, but he will surely come up against the same barriers. That said, the Tories did of course instigate EVEL, so Crabb might be marginally more up against it.

This does raise the question of whether we will ever see another PM or UK party leader from a devolved nation ever again? Right now, it doesn’t look likely.

Ben O’Keeffe is the author of the Waulz! blog ( and a public affairs and communications consultant.

13 thoughts on “Stephen Crabb and the increasingly slim chance of a Welsh PM

  1. Well we’re all aware that devolution has restricted access to top public sector jobs in Wales to non Welsh speakers. However, it’s interesting that another devolution dividend appears to now be that the TOP job is also now off limits to us Welsh… no matter what language we speak.

  2. An interesting piece but I think you misunderstand EVEL. It does not ‘effectively ensure[.. ] English MPs are the only ones voting on legislation that is exclusively relevant to England’. What it does is to insert, effectively, a veto stage at which only English (or English and Welsh, in England and Wales matters) MPs can vote. So under EVEL no measure affecting only England can be passed in the face of the opposition of a majority of English MPs; but the support of a majority of English MPs does not ensure that a measure will be passed, because all measures still require a majority of all MPs to pass. The recent Commons vote on changing Sunday trading laws in England and wales shows this: that had, I think, a majority of English and Welsh MPs in favour but, principally because the SNP opposed it there, was not a majority in the House as a whole, so it was not passed.

  3. Really interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. The electoral procedures for UK Party leaders need to be explicit that the role of Prime Minister is open to politicians from any part of the UK.

  4. EVEL is a relatively minor consequence for Wales of the growing fault lines in British politics, divisions already triggered by one referendum, and likely to be deepened by another. Far greater changes are latent in the coming referendum.

    Consider the outcome of a narrow vote to leave the EU. A majority of Scottish voters having (probably) voted to remain, a new push for Scottish independence will be under way. English objections to a new international border north of the Cheviots will be undermined by their recent popular vote to create a new international border in northern Ireland. A second Scottish referendum will have a very different context – instead of being a vote to leave the UK, it will be a vote to remain in Europe. That should deliver many new Yes votes.

    The consequences for Wales, should Scotland vote in a second referendum to leave the UK, are staggering. The pragmatic coalition of nations that comprised a united kingdom for centuries will be blown apart. With Ireland, and now Scotland departed, the residual entity of England plus two ungainly appendices, neither of which sought such status, has no political coherence. The political agenda in Wales, never previously keen on independence, will face stark alternatives – either allow “Wales” to dissolve into the new devolution-lite city regions of England-and-Wales, or contemplate loosening the ties with England, in a post-Brexit world where Ireland and Scotland have become foreign countries.

    Bets, anyone?

  5. I am rather surprised that nobody seems to have asked Mr Crabb whether he would accept offer of the job of Prime Minister before bothering to speculate about the issue.!

  6. Poor old broken Westminster. Again. Held together with sealing wax and vellum in a Victorian pantomime building that leaks like a sieve. They tinker and endlessly adjust but it will all come to a grinding halt one day soon and neither Stephen Crabb nor anyone else will be able to put it back together. Meanwhile power ebbs unremittingly to Piketty’s ‘concentrated capital’ and ‘we the people’ look on in increasing impotence.

  7. oh dear, how often does a lie have to be refuted before it stops being spread? Top public sector jobs in Wales are overwhelmingly held by non-Welsh speakers. Most of our top civil servants are not even Welsh, let alone Welsh-speaking Heads of our universities are mainly not Welsh speaking. Welsh is not a requirement for any top job in Wales outside S4C. In Ireland, Irish Gaelic is a requirement for many public sector jobs. Is Seamôr gettng his countries mixed up?

  8. R Tredwyn

    Well I posted a perfectly acceptable Walesonline link which reported on a row about the last Welsh labour leadership contest where several AMs had commented that the leader had to be Welsh speaking. Edwina Hart had suggested that was nonsense and was attacked left, right and centre for her comments. So no I am not getting my countries mixed up! I suggest you google it as the mods here wont allow links to walesonline clearly.

  9. Seamor,

    I’m a non welsh language speaking Welsh person and I’m not sure exactly what the point is that you are making. Are you suggesting that the ability to communicate in Welsh is not an important criteria in the selection of the Top Job. Is it wrong for an AM to suggest that she thought it was important. I think it is important for someone in the Top Job to demonstrate that they are not coming from a particular silo with no empathy for a large part of the Welsh population. I don’t speak Welsh, because I have no day-to-day necessity to do so and ultimately no-one to particularly communicate with in Welsh. If hypothetically I was running for a role like Edwina was, well I would certainly not make flippant comments, stating that Chinese might be more important. She didn’t lose because she couldn’t speak Welsh, but her crass comments certainly showed up a flaw in her ability to empathise with a large part of the Welsh public and that is a fatal flaw for someone who wanted to be a representative of the whole of Wales.

    Personally, I quite like Edwina, she’s forthright , says what she thinks and gets things done, but in this particular case that characteristic was completely inappropriate and let her down. It might have represented a feeling within the confines of her constituency, but she was running for a lot more than that. I’m sure Huw Lewis is unable to speak Welsh fluently, if at all, but it didn’t stop him from being a bit more empathetic and stating that he was learning. It was very flippant of Edwina to put it down to being bad at learning languages – what she was saying was that she had no inclination to and that is not what I would like to see in someone assuming the role of first minister.

    I’m tempted to take up learning welsh after reading your comments – I’m sure that it can’t be that difficult.

  10. Well we’re all aware that devolution has restricted access to top public sector jobs in Wales to non Welsh speakers.

    Actually no, devolution has not restricted, nor has it made any difference, to the employment of English speakers. English language only speakers still have preferential access to the top public sector jobs. The only evidence to the contrary seems to be someone saying “my friend told me you can’t get a job in Wales unless you speak Welsh”. While that may be believed by some people in England I don’t think you will find many people in Wales who will believe such hog-wash

  11. “I’m tempted to take up learning welsh after reading your comments – I’m sure that it can’t be that difficult. ”

    Come back in 6 months time and tell us how you are getting on.

  12. Colin,

    A fair challenge – I could reply and say you’re on and accept it, but I’d be exposed as a fraud at the end of the day. I am a non-welsh speaking welsh person and in the 2011 census I ticked the no-skills box to say so – nothing dishonest there and I’ve never had a conversation with anyone in my life in Welsh, but I have to confess to not being completely ignorant of the language either – like many of my age, there are many Welsh speakers in my extended family and I did O level Welsh second language at school – the era in the 1980’s where people often reminisce about learning nothing much more than “rydw I’n hoffi coffi”. I’ve also kept an off and on interest in later life, but never had the time to consider attending evening classes, tuition etc. I also know that it would be a very short step for me to speak Welsh and I think that I could probably reach a very good standard of fluency in a month or so, but that wouldn’t prove or disprove how easy or difficult the language is to learn. I confess to being a little misleading in my post and I apologise for that.

    This was in response to the question that top jobs were reserved for Welsh speakers, which simply isn’t the case. There is no compulsion on anyone to do so, but any politician worthy of being a politician in Wales is very capable of learning the language and they can only enhance their appeal by doing so, so as politicians why don’t they – there really isn’t a barrier, only a string of advantages.

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