Ieuan Wyn Jones reflects on leading Plaid Cymru into government for the first time, including negotiating the Coalition, managing economic policy and working with First Ministers Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones.
Akash Paun (AP): After the 2007 election, there was an attempt to form a coalition between Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It would be interesting to hear what you recall about that process and why a government was not ultimately formed.
Ieuan Wyn Jones (IWJ): I think the experience of the previous period teaches a few lessons. In the first Assembly election in ‘99, everyone was expecting a Labour majority in the early stages. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that because Ron Davies, who was the Labour Secretary of State for Wales, resigned. There was a contest for a successor and there was a feeling that his successor Alun Michael had been imposed [by the UK Labour leadership]. That led to a much more difficult election for Labour than was anticipated, leading to a position where Labour didn’t have an overall majority. That was the first indication that devolution wasn’t delivering majority governments in any part of the UK, apart from a few exceptions. We were there grasping with this new idea and how to make it work. Because we’d operated in Westminster as a small party in a system where you had a majority government, we were now finding ourselves in this position we’d never been in before as the leading opposition party. It was all new to us. We had to work our way through it and looking back didn’t make a very good job of it. Eventually there was a Labour/Liberal coalition that saved the project in the early days, and we learnt a few lessons from that.
There was another election in 2003 where Labour again didn’t get an overall majority but decided to operate as a minority government. They had 30 out of 60 [seats], but basically that is not a majority because you have one from each side as Presiding Officer and Deputy [Presiding Officer], so it was potentially a draw in every Assembly vote. Though let’s be blunt, most decisions aren’t made as a result of votes in the plenary: 80% of government is administrative anyway, so you can do a lot [without a majority]. They didn’t have a legislative programme in those days because there were no legislative powers, so the key vote for them was the [Welsh] Budget. Once they got a Budget through they could govern. But then, as that 2003 period started to gather pace, Labour began to lose their majority because they lost two members, one John Marek, who against their wishes had been elected as Deputy Presiding Officer, and Peter Law. We were then back in the position we were in in 1999 with Labour not having an overall majority and actually now as a real minority. The opposition parties felt we couldn’t put ourselves back in the position we found ourselves in the first Assembly.
We were three different parties, but we started to think, well actually, we’ve got a bit more power here. They can’t get the Budget through without talking to us. We decided initially that we would challenge them and say we’d vote down their Budget unless they talked to us. Labour hadn’t seen anything like that before, so we decided, yes, we can have some of our priorities included in the Budget. And in 2005 we voted the Budget down. That meant that they had to talk. I mean, for the first time you had dialogue between government and the opposition parties, and that I think happened two or three times before the 2007 election.
What you have got to remember is that in those days, because the Welsh Assembly was a corporate body and all the power rested with the plenary, the parliament and the Government were part of the same body. Therefore, if the Assembly made a resolution that was binding.
AP: So, even though by then they’d made the informal separation between Assembly and Government, in law they were still the same body.
IWJ: In law it was still there. I think it was after 2007 really that they were legally separated. We [the opposition parties] started to work together, and worded resolutions so they were binding on the Government and they couldn’t really resist. So, for example, they wanted to get rid of a number of quangos, like the Arts Council, the Welsh Language Board and a few others, and we said no. So we just voted against that. And whereas we weren’t ready in ’99, Labour weren’t ready for that kind of confrontation in 2005, and so were floundering a bit.
AP: Because they were used to having their own way.
IWJ: They were used to having their own way, and then suddenly realised they weren’t having their own way, so it was quite frustrating for them. Anyway, I think that background is important in the lead up to 2007, because what had happened was the opposition parties had started to work together and trusted each other. I had regular meetings with my two colleagues who were the leaders of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. We worked very well together on a personal level, and we started to think we could put a government together if we put our minds to it, if the maths after the election was like that.
AP: So, you were having those conversations even before the election?
IWJ: Oh, yes. It is important really, because you can’t just go into discussions after an election with people you aren’t really comfortable with. So we’d worked well together in that two to three year period, and as the election came there was a lot of discussion around coalitions because people felt that Labour had struggled in 2005 or ’06 or ’07, so they wondered what would happen after the election. And I think Labour were very complacent about it, because they thought that if there was another minority government, all they needed to do was another deal with the Liberal Democrats as they had done in 2000, 2001. But the Liberal Democrats, by this time, had a different idea. They said: “No, we’re not going to go in with Labour, we’re going to go in with you”. But Labour didn’t know any of this, so when the election came, and they [Labour] had 26 seats, they thought they would just talk to the Liberal Democrats. But the Lib Dems said: “No, we’re not having a coalition”. So Labour were absolutely flabbergasted; they weren’t expecting that. But we had been working with the two opposition parties for quite a while, so we agreed a Programme for Government after lots of discussions.
But the Lib Dems said: “No, we’re not having a coalition”. So Labour were absolutely flabbergasted
One of the things that I was very conscious of was that I needed the sanction of my party. We, as a party, had never been anywhere near government before, coalition was totally new. So I had to take it through all the democratic processes within the party. The Conservatives didn’t do that. They just said we are doing it and that was it. I think they have learnt some lessons from that, in Wales anyway. They have said now that if they were to make a coalition again, they would do it the same as us, because actually it gives you legitimacy. The Liberal Democrats were doing the same. Now, you have to do these calculations about how likely it is you can get it through your party. So I undertook a series of tours across Wales, talking to party members, asking what they thought, giving them a bit more briefing about what was likely to happen. And there were two stages to it. The first was a discussion in the party’s National Executive and the other – where the final decision rested – was the National Council. My feeling was that the executive discussion could be difficult. But I felt I was likely to win a vote in the Council. Mike German, who was the Liberal Democrat leader thought his executive would be fine but their conference could be difficult. But he miscalculated. The Liberal Democrat Executive was tied, and as a result of that, because the chair couldn’t give a casting vote, the motion was lost. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats told me that they had to pull out of the discussion. But for that one vote, the likelihood is that there would have been what they call a ‘rainbow coalition’.
AP: You then quickly entered into negotiations with Labour and ended up doing a coalition deal with them instead. How did you negotiate that?
IWJ: I think Labour were flabbergasted when the Liberal Democrats were prepared to come with us rather than with them, and therefore they were outside the discussion for quite a while and were desperately worried that they would lose their position as the party of government. But then, of course, they were thrown this lifeline when the Liberal Democrats decided against the rainbow coalition. Labour then made some overtures to us, some promises, the things they thought would bring us to the negotiating table. We’d had earlier discussions with Labour but they were basically very cursory, they were talking about ‘confidence and supply’, and I told them I wasn’t interested. We hadn’t got this far to do that. Confidence and supply is okay if you have a big party and a small party working together. But when you have got parties which are fairly equal, one with 26, the other with 15 [seats] then you can’t have that kind of arrangement. We’d have little influence, very little power, and yet you are stuck with being linked to all the unpopular decisions. I said: “No, we’re not doing it.” However they were now ready to talk about coalition. And that is what happened.
One of the things that I noticed, and this was quite an important part of the discussion, was that when the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had agreed a coalition, that coalition document was a list of about 100 bullet points. Basically, you could argue either way what they meant and they were quite difficult to interpret sometimes. We’re going to have a document that details all the policies that we were going to deliver in every field: economy, health, whatever it was, and then we’d have to sign them and deliver on them.
We’re going to have a document that details all the policies that we were going to deliver in every field
AP: You wanted there to be a lot more detail…
IWJ: A lot more detail, yes, and the vision of what we were trying to achieve. There were two aspects to the agreement: one was the policy, and then, once we’d agreed all that, we went to the governance side: how the parties would operate vis-à-vis each other.
AP: On the policy side, what were your priorities that you were keen to get into the agreement?
IWJ: We’d been developing policy for 80 years or so and [had] no previous opportunities to put them into practice. So there were quite a lot of policy initiatives in our drawer that we were wanting to deliver.
Because of our geography maintaining a health service which delivers for rural and urban [areas] was something that we were quite keen to do and to see some ideas on how we could do that. It is quite a difficult one in health because, let’s be honest, lots of specialisms are now delivered centrally, but some emergency services have to be delivered locally because of the travelling distances involved. Then on things like education, we felt that the Government was tending to spread the money too thinly, so we wanted to focus on key areas and we agreed [with Labour] that the foundation years was something that we wanted to fund. On the economy, we wanted it to be more driven by innovation, research and development, rather than the usual things that governments do, which is big infrastructure. I was quite keen on that, which is why I did the job I was doing after I left government [Executive Director of Menai Science Park, 2013–18]. So, I was very keen on that. And then on transport, we felt that all the investment since the ‘Act of Union’ between England and Wales had been east-west, and we felt we had to address that a bit. So we wanted more and better communications between north and south. I know it is quite difficult to persuade you to come to Anglesey, and there is a reason for that: there’s a perception that it is a difficult place to get to, and that’s historical. So we wanted to improve that sort of infrastructure. When it came to talk through that a bit later, that proved to be one of the more contentious ones with the civil service.
But the key thing that Labour felt would hook us into the Coalition was that they were going to promise this referendum on law-making powers.
AP: Yes, which had been legislated for but the timing still needed to be agreed. You also put some thought into how the Coalition ought to work and into collective decision making. How did you end up with a set of rules on that?
IWJ: We’d had a lot of information from Mike German, because he had been in coalition [as Deputy First Minister, 2000–03]. And, of course, when we were drawing up our rainbow coalition he brought a lot of his experience. He said you need to remove some of the blockages. A bit like at Westminster, power resides in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Treasury – probably more in the Treasury than the Prime Minister’s office to be honest but that’s another argument – in the Welsh Government considerable power resides in the First Minister’s office. So he was saying you have got to remember that the civil service will look to that office for guidance on everything. Even though you might be a minister for whatever, if the First Minister says something happens, it is likely to happen. So you need to make sure that the governance arrangements allow you access to all the information that the First Minister has. The first thing we agreed was that all the paperwork on every policy area needed to pass my desk as well as his. And then we set up two committees, one to make sure that we weren’t out-gunned on financial affairs. Because the key axis in the Government was the First Minister and the Finance Minister: nothing really happened unless they agreed to it, because obviously one had to agree on policy and the other finance. So we set up a financial committee to make sure that we had access to all the paperwork. I mean, it’s not quite like the Treasury here, but it was a form of information gathering.
The first thing we agreed was that all the paperwork on every policy area needed to pass my desk as well as his.
AP: Yes, since the Finance Minister job was going to remain with Labour. How did you agree on the allocation of portfolios and your own job?
IWJ: I thought that would be the most difficult bit, but actually it turned out to be easier than I thought. My decision, even before the Coalition happened, was that I needed a portfolio because I needed to have departmental responsibilities, not just to sit there waiting for other decisions to happen. I think the mistake that Nick Clegg made is that he became Deputy Prime Minister but without a portfolio. So I insisted that I should have a portfolio even though I was Deputy First Minister, and I said the one that I would prefer would be economy and transport. Then I had an [Assembly] Member who was an expert on agriculture whom I wanted to appoint to the Government, so we made sure that there was a portfolio which was basically rural affairs and included agriculture and some environmental policy areas. And then the third one was culture. We beefed that up a bit. Culture included the Welsh language, which was quite an important consideration for us. I realised from talking to ministers in the previous Labour Government that they felt that putting the Welsh language with culture relegated it. Unless you have a Cabinet minister responsible, the civil service head of department is quite junior. So if you have got a Cabinet minister, they give you a more powerful departmental head. And of course when it came to things like discussions around the Budget, a lot of stuff goes on between heads of the civil service in each department – if you’ve got a junior there, it tends to get squeezed out.
We insisted that that should be a proper Cabinet post, and a senior civil servant heading the department. Another post we had was a junior minister, for housing, which is quite important for us as well. So that was it.
AP: So then you took up those two roles. What do you remember about your first day in the job?
IWJ: Not much really. I do remember that there was panic because you had to have the Queen’s consent to the appointment after 2007. I was appointed Deputy First Minister before any other ministers in the party. That position had to be established first, and then of course I had to make an announcement in the chamber. There was great panic because it wasn’t looking as though the consent to the appointment would come in time from the Palace, so it was quite hair-raising. Eventually it came, so I was able to do it. But my first day, to be blunt, was deciding who else should come in with me to government from the Plaid [Cymru] side.
So, once that was all sorted and the Government was in place, you started on your departmental responsibility and you then entered into a different ball game. What we tried to do in reaching the coalition agreement was to get civil service buy-in, because it is quite important for the civil service to be able to be comfortable with what you are trying to deliver. We’d had lots of discussions with the permanent secretary [to the Welsh Government], but actually the permanent secretary isn’t involved in the day-to-day stuff of running a department. We needed to make sure that each civil servant heading each department was comfortable with what we were trying to do. But then of course we found that, although some were paying lip service, others were quite obstructive. And sometimes it was quite difficult to get them to do what the coalition had decided through the coalition agreement. They had been used to having one party running things and they were finding it quite difficult to adjust to different ministers. What we were finding was that if they found they weren’t getting anywhere with their minister, previously they could run to the First Minister but, of course, they couldn’t now, so it was quite difficult.
AP: As Deputy First Minister, did you and Rhodri Morgan jointly manage the rest of the ministers or jointly chair Cabinet?
IWJ: The idea was that it would become quite a collegiate set-up, but the reality was that it was quite difficult to achieve because there were certain decisions that only one person could take, and inevitably that would be the First Minister. So whatever set-up you put in place, that was always going to happen. So although there were committees set up, whatever system you put in place, the First Minister was always in a much more powerful position.
Despite the governance arrangements, we found that that was very difficult to achieve in practice. The reality was that the work of government went on, and if we were uncomfortable with a decision a Labour minister made or they were uncomfortable with a decision a Plaid minister made, then we would discuss that internally before anything else, and that had to happen quite regularly.
AP: And was there a struggle to ensure that your policy priorities were pursued?
IWJ: Not really. I think one of the things that Rhodri Morgan, as distinct from his predecessor, was very good at was letting ministers get on with it. So if we’d agreed a policy programme, as long as you kept to the policy programme, then basically he didn’t interfere.
AP: Was protecting the public profile of your party a challenge?
IWJ: That was a challenge, yes, because the government machine tends to try to run ‘business as usual’… The PR staff were finding it very difficult to recognise that they were working with Plaid ministers and they needed to be able to have space to say things themselves, because they’d always been used to Labour ministers. Over time it got better but in the early days, it was certainly a challenge.
The PR staff were finding it very difficult to recognise that they were working with Plaid ministers… because they’d always been used to Labour ministers.
Tess Kidney Bishop (TKB): You said Rhodri Morgan was good at letting the ministers get on with it. Once Carwyn Jones came in at the end of 2009, what did you see as the difference in their styles?
IWJ: There was no difference in that regard. But what you have got to remember is that Rhodri Morgan had a Westminster background, as well as Assembly, and he would often concern himself with what they thought down the other end of the M4. He didn’t really want to upset them too much because he came from that tradition, and he knew that some of the gossip was: “You’re not going to like what they are doing at the other end of the M4.” Carwyn Jones had none of that really, because he was a creature of devolution. He was much more relaxed about saying: “If we are doing something and we think it’s right, they’re going to have to live with it down there, aren’t they?” He was much more relaxed about being able to do things and much more comfortable with the thought of doing the referendum on law-making powers. Rhodri agreed to it, but I felt that he was always hoping that it wouldn’t happen.
TKB: Do you remember any other particularly contentious points with either First Minister that you had to work out?
IWJ: With Rhodri Morgan, departmental ministerial responsibilities weren’t a problem because he was quite relaxed about ministers just getting on with the job. Even if there were decisions that would have been uncomfortable for his own party, he would back the Plaid minister, publicly as well as in Cabinet, as he felt that we’d agreed this programme and it had got to be delivered: some of his party might be uncomfortable with various aspects of it but that’s what we’d agreed, so he would do that. So that wasn’t a problem.
I think the main problem, if I can be honest, was that there were certain elements at Westminster that weren’t happy with what we were doing, not his own [Assembly] Members in Wales but [Labour] MPs [in London], and he could get exercised about that. And sometimes things would happen… There would be closed meetings between him and the Secretary of State for Wales or whoever it may be, and we’d find things had been said that were quite damaging to the Coalition, so we had to step in and deal with it, whereas under the Carwyn Jones set-up, that wasn’t an issue.
To be honest, the Westminster team of Labour MPs never wanted the referendum; that was the key thing for them. I am only thinking out loud here, but the impression I got was that, although it was included in the 2006 legislation that you could go for a referendum on law-making powers, the way it was sold to Labour Members [in London] was that nothing was going to happen for many years: it’s there, but nobody was going to trigger it. And then when we put it into a coalition document, they tried everything to water it down. Rhodri Morgan, in fairness to him, signed up to it, but then there was always this constant sort of: “We’re going to stop this if we can.” And I just felt that Rhodri never really broke free from that. He felt that somehow or other he needed to keep them on board.
To be honest, the Westminster team of Labour MPs never wanted the referendum
TKB: What challenges did you have in implementing your priorities in the economy and transport role?
IWJ: In the early days, I had immense issues with the Transport civil servants. In the coalition document, we had included commitments to improving links – road, rail and air – between the north and south of Wales. There was tremendous resistance to that within the transport team. In reality, the old Welsh Office team was mainly made up of road engineers, and there was little expertise on public transport. The road engineers had a priority system for road improvements which didn’t accord with the coalition’s priorities. There was resistance to our plans, so it took a while for them to recognise that this was now a new government with a different set of priorities.
The other thing was that, because there was a lack of expertise in the section on public transport and railways, I needed to have civil servants there who had more experience of that side of things, so we had to reorganise the department a bit to make sure that we had a proper balance. I knew that on the horizon, as now has happened, there would be a new franchise for the railways. So we needed to prepare for that. There needed to be some changes in the department.
AP: And you had only anyway got those functions very recently, hadn’t you?
IWJ: In 2003, the [Wales and Border Rail] franchise was agreed and the money came to us. So we were actually paying for the service, although we had no responsibility for agreeing the franchise.
TKB: In general, do you think you saw the civil servants becoming more effective and more helpful to you over your time in office?
IWJ: Certainly in transport, by the end, they totally bought into it. But they were a new team really. They had different backgrounds, and it was important to have different backgrounds. In the days of the old Welsh Office, you didn’t need policy staff. Basically, they were given a grant and they just carried on with it, so the policy was Westminster policy and they just delivered it in Wales. Devolution was new to them because they never had to deal with ministers directly before, which was quite a shock to some of them.
TKB: And what were your objectives in the wider economic portfolio?
IWJ: In the early days, I spent a lot of time sorting out transport. I felt that the economy side was running quite smoothly. But once I’d finished reorganising, if you like, transport, I then looked at economy and realised that there were things that needed to be done there as well. Wales is a country of relatively small businesses – it doesn’t have large companies – and lots of them had become dependent on government funding, so there was a sort of grant culture. My feeling was it needed to have a bit more of an enterprise culture. I implemented a new policy direction through a document entitled Economic Renewal. There would be grants available for start-ups, but in the main we turned grants into loans which companies paid them back as they became profitable. And there was a lot more emphasis on things like research and development and innovation, rather than just large infrastructure projects which give you a short boost but don’t actually give you long-term sustainability for the economy. That was my feeling.
TKB: Did you feel that you had the powers to achieve the priorities that you had set out?
IWJ: The reality was that the economy budget was about £250m… When we hit the financial crisis, I remember this guy came in and said: “Look, what you have for a year is what businesses borrow in a month”. So I had to be realistic about what we could achieve and we decided we needed to be a bit more effective with the money that we had. I mean, the big levers are here [in London]: macroeconomic policy is still decided in Westminster; tax powers, until quite recently are decided here. So the levers that you had were relatively limited but I decided I needed to make the use I could of them. So my impact really was quite limited in terms of changing the performance of the economy because the levers were outside of my control.
The reality was that the economy budget was about £250m… I remember this guy came in and said: “Look, what you have for a year is what businesses borrow in a month”.
TKB: Did you work in partnership with the British Government on a lot of this? How did that work out?
IWJ: To a certain extent, yes, although some departments here struggled. A lot of it, when I look back, depended on personal relationships to be honest. If you had a good relationship with your opposite number as a minister, then things happened, and they could see the benefit of some things happening. If they were agnostic at best or hostile to devolution then it was always difficult.
TKB: Was there a major change in 2010 when the UK Government changed, or was it more about the individuals?
IWJ: It was more about the individuals, because I found, quite surprisingly, that there were a lot of Labour ministers who were agnostic on devolution and found it difficult to handle really. So it did depend a lot on personalities. I had good relationships with Labour ministers and with some Conservative ministers post 2010. It just depended on individuals, to be honest. And of course there had to be a good relationship between the civil servants. If you had a meeting with a UK minister, a lot of the pre-work was between the civil servants, and you ended up at the meeting with a briefing paper, so a lot of the work had been done. So as long as the relationship between the two sets of civil servants was good, that helped the relationship between the ministers.
AP: Would you have any advice to future ministers about what one can do to work effectively with ministers in the national government?
IWJ: I found that, over time, relationships were getting better. I mean, there are two formal structures that allow you to have more high-level discussions with Westminster. One was the British-Irish Council, where you would have an opportunity to meet ministers from devolved administrations, but there would always be UK ministers too. You also had an opportunity to talk to them informally, which always helped. The one which was more difficult was the Joint Ministerial Committee because that was quite a bit more formal. In the British-Irish Council, because you were away for a period of time – it could be in Guernsey, it could be in Jersey, it could be in Scotland, it could be in Wales, it could be Belfast – you would always have to have a lunch meeting and meetings in the evening, so you would have informal discussions. Whereas the Joint Ministerial Committee was a meeting and that was it.
AP: And it was always here in Whitehall?
IWJ: Always here in Whitehall, so basically your meeting lasted about a couple of hours.
AP: And did it serve any useful purpose from your perspective?
IWJ: It did because it highlighted some of the major issues that we tried to resolve. The big gripe of the devolved administrations is they think there should be decisions which would provide devolved administrations with more finance. For example, the Barnett Formula was applied quite strictly so that infrastructure projects that happened in England didn’t always have a consequential, and you felt they should have a consequential. HS2 is an example of that. So what we were trying to do was to agree a mechanism whereby these issues could be resolved, and the Whitehall machinery was always very unhappy about anybody having any control over the way the Treasury spent its money. What we tried to set up was an arbitration system whereby if there was a disagreement between the UK Government and the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish Government about consequentials, then it could go to this body. But, of course, the Treasury wouldn’t have any of that. There was a dispute resolution [protocol] but it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, because the Treasury always had the last word.
There was a dispute resolution [protocol] but it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, because the Treasury always had the last word.
So that was one thing, and then the other one was intergovernmental relations. I think that is where it probably was useful. Sometimes you would be knocking on the door of other departments in London and nothing would happen, and then you could raise it at the Joint Ministerial Committee, and normally those doors would then open. One thing I did in the end was, where I needed close relationships, such as on transport, then I would set up quite regular meetings with, not always the Secretary of State but sometimes his junior minister. I found that very helpful because the more meetings that you had, the better the relationship developed.
TKB: What was your experience of leaving government in 2011?
IWJ: We had this highlight in March 2011, whereby the referendum delivered more powers. That was a key part of the coalition agreement, so we were very happy about that. But we knew in 2011 from January onwards that the party’s performance in the polls would indicate that we weren’t likely to be in such a strong position in a new Assembly. We sort of resigned ourselves to the feeling that the four years we’d had in government probably would be coming to an end. Therefore, from about January onwards, it was, as all governments do, just going through the motions, to be honest. After the referendum result, we were hitting purdah and then you couldn’t make any announcements or anything. So it was just tidying up. And then that was it, as soon as the election was over, it all came to an end.
TKB: What advice would you give to a future minister in the Welsh Government on how to be effective in office?
IWJ: My view is that you have to determine quite early on what you want to achieve. Remember that your time as a minister is likely to be quite short in relation to your public life as a politician, and therefore decide what your priorities are going to be and stick to them, and don’t be distracted too much by the day-to-day involvement of ministerial life. Make sure you’ve got a clear idea before you go in of what you want to achieve and stick to it.
I had been in the job probably about six weeks when a civil servant just slipped me a book and said: “Read that.” It was a book by Gerald Kaufman, How To Be A Minister. And this civil servant wanted me to read it because, he was saying, all the civil service tricks were in there. And I read the book… Kaufman was such a humorous writer, and I found that the tricks he highlighted came true in my experience. I found it extremely helpful. Whenever you get a chance to, read it, because it is hilarious as well as quite true.