This coming Tuesday sees the Welsh Government unveil the next phase of its programme for the rest of the Assembly term with the publication of its spending plans.
Always an important event, this year’s draft budget will be watched even more intensely than usual because of the political reality in the Assembly which is that, without a majority of seats, the Labour government simply doesn’t have enough votes to force its plans through.
It means that Carwyn Jones will need at least one of the other three parties to support the budget or more likely abstain when it comes to a vote.
You may remember that’s what happened back in 2006, when Plaid Cymru reached agreement with Rhodri Morgan’s minority government.
Plaid members abstained in the final vote, thus saving Labour’s budget which had been close to being rejected by a united opposition.
Here’s what I know:
• No substantial, formal negotiations have taken place between the Welsh Government and the opposition parties in the build-up to the publication of the draft budget.
One option for Labour could have been to have approached one or more of the parties to find out what their wish-lists were.
I’m told there have been no such approaches. A Welsh government source told me, ‘We won’t play our hand before publication and we don’t negotiate beforehand.’
That’s not to say there haven’t been conversations between the parties. The Finance Minister Jane Hutt meets opposition finance spokespeople regularly and they say they’ve certainly made their priorities clear in those meetings.
But the draft budget published next Tuesday will be Labour’s budget, based on its manifesto and not tailored to meet any of the concerns of the other parties.
Negotiations will happen before a final Budget is published, which is usually at the end of the year.
A Lib Dem source tells me the party has asked for more detailed budget lines to make it easier to negotiate.
• There’s no return of the rainbow. The three opposition parties aren’t working together.
One senior political source told me it would make sense for the three parties to band together to push for substantial changes to the Welsh Government’s plan and expressed the view that to do otherwise would allow Carwyn Jones simply to buy off one of them.
As far as I can tell, there’s no sign of co-operation between the three opposition parties on this. That’s not to say they won’t work together in the period after publication of the draft budget, but they haven’t been doing so yet.
• In fact the opposition parties have already made clear what they will be trying individually to acheive.
The Conservatives will be looking for commitment to spend more on health in keeping with their pledge to protect the health budget.
Plaid Cymru wants what it calls ’emergency measures’ such as reviving the Proact scheme to deal with mounting economic problems.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have said they will not back any budget which doesn’t go some way to increasing spending on schools so that it is closer to the amount spent per pupil in England.
• Budget negotiations will give us clues about long-term political arrangements in the Assembly.
Plaid’s decision to abstain in 2006 was seen by many as paving the way for its eventual coalition agreement with Labour in 2007.
Carwyn Jones’ Labour government is in a different position in 2011 and he’s said he intends to go it alone.
But a deal with one of the other parties that emerges could tell us if any secret talks have taken place about a more formal, long-term relationship.
• It’s going to be a tough settlement
As a Government source put it to me, ‘it’s the same pot of money, there’s no new money.’
The UK Government hands over £14 billion to the Welsh Government to spend. That figure is set to remain virtually unchanged over the next three years meaning there will be effective cuts in many spending areas.
• The Presiding Officer may have to vote against her own party
If the final vote on the budget is tied, which is what will happen if no deal is reached with any of the parties, the Presiding Officer is required to use her casting vote to maintain the status quo.
In practice that will mean that Rosemary Butler would have to use her casting vote against the budget based on the principle that there would be no majority for it.
Clever people than I in the Assembly commission have been giving some thought to the potential problem and even they acknowledge that the practical impact of this worst-case scenario is not clear cut.
Here’s what they think:
The Minister can table a further budget motion so it could be voted on again, and again. There is no status quo because at the moment we don’t have a budget for 2012/13. In the event that no motion is passed by the end of this financial year we get 95% of this year’s budget for next year.