With Peter Hain already fighting a rearguard action to forestall a referendum it seems that the Welsh Labour leadership election has caused a full scale retreat from the commitments in the One Wales agreement by at least two of the potential successors to Rhodri Morgan and some significant prefarication by the third.
In a debate between the three candidates on ITV last night Huw Lewis made it clear that he would not push for an early referendum on new powers if he wins the contest. The formula he has devised to frustrate his potential cabinet colleagues is one poll at a time:
‘It would be reckless and wrong for a Labour leader to take their eye off the ball, and the ball in play is ‘Let’s stop the Tories gaining power at the next general election,” he said.
But Plaid Cymru director of elections, Helen Mary Jones was not amused. She said Labour had committed to supporting a referendum before 2011 when the two parties agreed to share power in the One Wales pact, that there had already been enough consultation and that the Government now needed to get on with it:
‘This isn’t a matter for internal party politics. People like Huw Lewis need to remember that the deal was supported by the overwhelming majority of his party rank and file as it was by mine… The timing of the referendum should depend on the Convention’s advice and when the referendum is most likely to be won and not on an election to another place.’
Carwyn Jones also backtracked on the agreement he had signed up to as a Government Minister, keen not to lose the vote of the 15 MPs he has already signed up to support him. He told the programme´s viewers that it is essential there is ‘broad agreement within the Labour Party’ before the pre-referendum campaign begins:
‘It’s important that we actually talk to our colleagues in Westminster and talk to our party members and to the trade unions so they feel part of the process.
‘It would be a very bad move if it was simply Labour AMs who were seen as moving the process towards a referendum without consulting without anyone else in the party.’
Even Edwina Hart was cautious, saying that the decision to go ahead with a campaign would have to be discussed within the coalition cabinet and individual parties. She did though stress her own record as a supporter of new powers, saying: ‘I have been before the Assembly was even established back in 1999. It is about powers for a purpose – I believe it so we can get on with doing things.’
The timing of the Welsh Labour leadership election could not have come at a worst time for the One Wales Government. Rhodri Morgan will still be in place when the All Wales Convention reports next month, but the decision as to how to proceed with its conclusions will rest with his successor.
It is unlikely that any of the three candidates would want to upset the rank and file so early in their tenure and with a General Election looming, nor will the role of the Secretary of State for Wales be insignificant in this process.
Although the odds of a referendum taking place within the timescale allotted by the One Wales Agreement remain good, there appear to be significant factors at play that may well sabotage this happening. It is no wonder that Plaid Cymru are getting jittery.