Who will Rhodri share his new toys with?

Labour may be feeling gloomy about the Scottish elections but in Wales it's a rather different story

THE prospect of a Scottish showdown between Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond has, understandably, prompted acres of excitable newspaper coverage south of the border, but 200 miles west of Whitehall another election contest has been meandering along, almost un-noticed.

Anyone who has followed the Scottish campaign, will, if they suddenly switch their attention to the Welsh Assembly poll, immediately recognised the carefully, complex choreography that the party leaders are engaged in. In Wales, as in Scotland, coalition politics is here to stay, and who’s flirting with whom is a key theme of the election.

There’s one key difference between these Celtic elections, though – in Wales there is no prospect of anyone other than Labour, led by the idiosyncratic but popular Rhodri Morgan, being the largest party.

They currently hold 29 of the 60 seats, and most pundits, me included, expected them to get 24-25 this time around.

That means deals need to be done when the results are in. Most likely is a Lab-Lib coalition, although the prospect of a Lab-Plaid Cymru arrangement has also been floated, sending sparks flying within both parties. An outside bet is a Plaid-Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which would represent a political earthquake requiring a new scale to measure it.

The prospect of the Tories in Government, albeit working with others, has been used by Labour to try to frighten its core voters into turning up on May 3. Plaid have thrown a spanner in the works, however, by insisting they wouldn’t serve as a junior partner to the Tories.

The fight for second place, therefore, takes on added significance. Early polls pointed to a Tory revival, with a mix of the Cameron effect and the Welsh Tories’ re-positioning as a pro-devolution party helping to put them ahead of Plaid. But more recent surveys show Plaid – who, for once, have some money to burn – back ahead.

All this coalition talk risks turning off voters, of course - after all, likes being taken for granted. Despite their habit of telling pollsters they do like devolution, only 38% of Welsh people turned out to vote in 2003. This year the figure may creep up, but not by much.

Surveying the scene on May 4 will be Mr Morgan, the Labour leader who has been left largely to do his own thing in office, and his own thing in the campaign. A long-standing proponent of a Scottish-style parliament, he’ll have more powers in a new, half-way house system after the election. But who’ll he choose to share his new toys with? We’ll have to wait and see.