Behind the scenes in the Assembly, party leaders have been meeting to try to reach agreement on the Welsh Government’s spending plans.
The reason why these meetings have been happening is because Carwyn Jones’ Labour Government doesn’t have a majority of votes in the Senedd; in fact the number of seats is equally divided between Labour on the one side and the three opposition parties on the other.
So in order to get his budget passed by the Assembly, he needs at least one of the other three parties to support or abstain when it comes to the final vote.
At the moment, the budget is in its draft stage which leaves open the possibility of change. But it needs to be finalised by 29th November after which a crucial vote will decide if it stands or falls.
When I last wrote about this in September, I grouped what I’d managed to find out under different headings. I’ve gone back to some of those to see what’s changed if anything and listed a few more.
• I said in September: 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.
That’s no longer the case. Meetings have taken place between the First Minister and the opposition party leaders and the Finance Minister and her counterparts.
A Welsh Government source played down those meetings, saying that the First Minister holds meetings regularly with the other party leaders to discuss a range of issues.
According to the other parties, further meetings are scheduled for either today or tomorrow. All the government source would say is that they’ll take place ‘as and when.’
• In September I said: There’s no return of the rainbow. The three opposition parties aren’t working together.
That’s still the case. For now.
You may remember that some party sources had suggested that the opposition leaders had an opportunity to join forces and pressure the Welsh Government into some major budget concessions.
They haven’t taken that opportunity and continue to press for their parties’ different priorities.
That could change although I think it’s unlikely. As one source put it to me, the parties ‘aren’t a million miles away’ from each other, are talking to each other to a certain extent and if Labour doesn’t offer significant changes, then could band together.
But the politics is very different to the last time such a situation arose, at the end of 2006.
The leaders of the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats haven’t developed the habit of working together as they had then.
Strong personal relationships haven’t developed between the current crop of leaders as had been the case in 2005 and 2006 – something that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
And anyway, they don’t have the upper hand as they did during that period. They can’t force alterations to the budget, all they can do is to prevent it being passed.
• In September, I said: In fact the opposition parties have already made clear what they will be trying individually to achieve.
This remains the case and the parties have continued to advertise what they want.
The Welsh Conservatives want more spending on health. They campaigned in the Welsh election with a pledge to protect the health budget and want to see Labour move towards that position and have identified areas – such as the idea of a cancer drugs fund – which it could agree on.
Plaid Cymru says it wants to see ‘a package of measures’ aimed at boosting the economy. The party says the economic situation has dramatically worsened and wants the Welsh Government to recognise this – something that Plaid says it has entirely failed to do. Its leadership wants more money diverted to the business minister to be able to fund those emergency measures.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats want money spent on jobs and skills and extra money for schools to replicate the party’s ‘pupil premium’ policy in England.
Here are some new headlines:
- All eyes are on Thursday.
The draft budget will be debated next Tuesday which means that the motion to debate it must be laid by Thursday. Whether or not the Welsh Government also tables amendments at this stage will tell us whether or not there’s been any success in the negotiations.
A government source said to me, ‘It’ll recognisably be our draft budget. There’ll only be any amendments if there are any discussions between now and then and at the moment, there are no discussions.’
- It’s not just about the Barnett money.
You may remember the Welsh Government was handed an amount of money – £38.5m – as a knock-on effect of the UK Government’s decision to freeze council tax in England. It ruled out using the money to do the same here in Wales, insisted it must be spent on boosting jobs and skills and invited the opposition parties to suggest ways of spending it.
Those opposition parties claim that Labour began the negotiations hoping that agreement on this would be enough for one or all of the parties to allow the budget through.
If that was the case, the three opposition parties seem determined not to let it be.
Plaid’s Simon Thomas said this morning that any deal with his party would have to include agreement on spending the Barnett money AND a ‘package of emergency measures’ to boost the economy.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats too have separated the two negotiations so that, even if they were to reach agreement on the £39m, they would still expect concessions in the wider budget.
- Plaid isn’t in a mood to settle early and quickly.
There’s been much speculation that Plaid is the most likely candidate amongst the opposition parties to reach agreement with Labour and allow the budget through.
This is based on two reasons. Firstly that the party was, until May, in coalition with Labour and there are loud voices within it who want to see that happen again.
Secondly because in 2006, that’s exactly what Ieuan Wyn Jones did.
But what those at the top of Plaid are saying is that they’re in no mood to settle easily and quickly this time. Bear in mind though that what they’re saying to me and other journalists is part of their negotiating strategy.
However, what’s certainly true is that Plaid finds itself in a very different political position to then.
A source close to Ieuan Wyn Jones told me that part of the reasoning for ‘peeling off’ from the united opposition was that continuing to oppose the budget could have brought down Rhodri Morgan’s government just six months before an election.
This time the dynamic’s different and Plaid has nothing to lose by holding out for the fullest possible concessions.
I should say, neither does Mr Jones, who’ll be replaced by a new leader in March.
- Support or Abstain?
When it comes down to it, all Carwyn Jones needs to do to get his budget passed is to persuade one of the parties to abstain in the final vote.
In the same press briefing that I mentioned earlier, Simon Thomas said that Plaid wanted to support a budget, but would need a significant deal to do so.
The Lib Dems are in a similar frame of mind. Their leader Kirsty Williams has repeatedly said that her party ‘will not support’ any budget that fails to meet its two main priorities of jobs/skills and school spending.
What I’ve been surprised at is that that position has been translated into an active wish to support a budget that has been altered in such a way, not merely to abstain.
I understand the Conservatives haven’t decided whether or not they’ll aim to be persuaded to support or abstain the final budget.
- Anything could happen.
A bit of a cop-out I know, but it’s not clear which, if any, of the above clues can tell us which party or parties are more likely to reach agreement with Labour.
We’ll have a better idea after Thursday, but we could still be guessing right up to 29th November when the final budget is laid.