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  1. Election 2024
6 June 2024

Could Vaughan Gething’s donations scandal affect Starmer?

The Welsh First Minister has lost a vote of no confidence less than three months into his time in office.

By Freddie Hayward

After only 78 days as First Minister, Vaughan Gething has lost a vote of confidence in the Senedd. Despite his determination to stay in post, his future is uncertain.

When he succeeded Mark Drakeford in March, Gething could not shake the stench surrounding donations of £200,000 that he received from the recycling magnate David Neal, who has been convicted twice for environmental crimes. There is no suggestion that the rules were broken, but the perception remains (among 70 per cent of voters, according to one poll) that Gething should have handed back the money – a huge amount in Welsh politics – when the donor’s history came to light.

He did not. He pressed on, unapologetically. As the pressure mounted, Welsh Labour tried to shake the story by accusing Gething’s critics of racism (he is Europe’s first black head of government). In his Senedd speech yesterday, he spoke about the “hurt” the episode had caused him, dismissing the no-confidence vote as a gimmick without any contrition. That he broke down in the chamber did not stop his opponents from baulking at his failure to apologise in his speech.

Hours before the vote, Labour started briefing that it might lose the vote because two Labour Senedd members – Lee Waters, who had said the donations were a mistake, and Hannah Blythyn, who Gething recently sacked – were supposedly ill. I’ve heard stories about whips in Westminster trying to hire a helicopter to retrieve MPs from the West Country in order to vote on important legislation. And Gething could not get his troops in line for a vote of confidence? Remember, more Labour Senedd members supported Gething’s opponent in the leadership contest, Jeremy Miles – which made it even more important for Gething to unify his party. He has not.

Gething is weakened, isolated and vulnerable. “The refusal to acknowledge there was anything wrong in taking the donation is causing genuine offence, and is going down badly with voters,” one Labour MS told me. In May, Plaid Cymru pulled its support from Labour’s minority government, placing the party’s ability to govern in jeopardy. Such disunity could only worsen once the general election – which has a rally-round-the-flag effect – is over.

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The more immediate problem for Labour is whether this could impact the general election. The Tories use Labour-run Wales, particularly its suboptimal NHS, to paint Labour as incompetent governors. Those attack lines will only increase. However, I do not think they will dent Labour’s lead, which has held strong in Wales even as Gething’s approval ratings have fallen. Across England there’s a simple reason it won’t matter: many people do not much care for what happens in Welsh politics – in the same way that Northern Ireland was absent from the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

So why did the ignominious resignation of Humza Yousaf attract such studied coverage? The SNP poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a way that Welsh Labour does not. That adds constitutional weight to the fate of the party, its leader and its popularity. Westminster follows Scottish politics because it could rip the House of Commons apart. Despite Plaid Cymru’s best efforts – and around 30 per cent Welsh people would vote for independence – that is not the case for Wales.

The extent to which Westminster takes note does not affect the importance of yesterday’s vote for Wales. Gething has not acknowledged how serious it is that the Senedd has lost confidence in his position, even though it is the body that appointed him First Minister. He might not have resigned, but that fact will catch up with him eventually.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The left power list 2024]

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