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

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

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.

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