This post was written by Nye Davies and Luke Nicholas
The First Minister’s decision to draft the leaders of the two largest opposition parties into his Cabinet Core Group is a unique constitutional development in the UK when it comes to the political handling of the pandemic.
The move brings the Conservative leader Paul Davies and his Plaid Cymru counterpart Adam Price closer to the decision-making process, without formally making those parties part of the government. At the time of writing, there is no comparable arrangement at Westminster, Holyrood or (for clearer reasons) Stormont.
Arguably, we have not seen this level of cross-party cooperation since the Second World War, where the major political parties agreed to join Winston Churchill’s war ministry. Desperate times call for desperate measures and political differences have been put aside to work together in the interests of the country.
The difference of tone in the response of Price and Davies to the invitation – a confident welcome by the Plaid leader and a more cautious one from his Conservative counterpart – can be explained by the differing styles and experiences of the two leaders.
Adam Price has already been involved in cross-party co-operation in this Senedd term and was instrumental to the ‘Compact’ arrangement between the Labour Government and Plaid Cymru. He and Mark Drakeford worked together on budget deals between their two groups before either of them became party leader. Paul Davies’ new closeness to government is without precedent but bringing him into the Cabinet committee clearly demonstrates the seriousness of the current crisis and how business as usual has been suspended.
Up until this point, scrutiny of the Welsh Government has been effectively conducted from the outside. Adam Price, for example, has recently been pressing the government to explain the reason behind the collapse of a deal between the Welsh Government and a company to supply coronavirus testing kits to the Welsh NHS. An initial promise was made by Welsh ministers to carry out 6,000 tests a day by 1 April. Yet, Vaughan Gething’s most recent estimate is that we are now “two or three weeks” away from carrying out 5,000 tests a day. A matter of such importance to the Welsh people cannot be ignored and Price has effectively, and quite rightly, kept the pressure on the Welsh Government.
It was a role played effectively by another Welsh politician, Aneurin Bevan, during World War Two. He faced heavy criticism for his scrutiny of the government during wartime – even receiving excrement through the door of his house – and accusations of attacking the spirit of common purpose that the war inspired. The Covid crisis cannot be compared to World War Two (despite talk of the ‘Blitz spirit’ some have attempted to invoke), but Bevan demonstrated that effective opposition was even more vital during a time of national crisis:
“Advocacy is the very essence of democracy. A formal unity, which serves to conceal and frustrate an underlying ferment, is a dangerous delusion rather than a source of national strength”.Aneurin Bevan, 1942
The entry of Price and Davies into the Covid Core Group gives the two politicians the opportunity to ‘scrutinise from the inside’. They will receive access to possibly confidential information and medical reports and will have to demonstrate that they can be trusted and consulted with on key issues. In turn, the two opposition leaders will be able to seek answers on PPE, testing and the pandemic itself, though probably not the social and economic fallout from the crisis.
It will be interesting to see, however, whether the high-level of scrutiny can be maintained from this new position. In addition to this, will Price and Davies be held responsible if the situation isn’t seen to have improved? It’s difficult to see how, as they won’t have decision-making powers.
The First Minister’s decision will probably be welcomed by those aware of it as a demonstration of mature politics, but time will tell whether the input of opposition leaders can refine the government’s handling of the pandemic and how it is communicated.