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27 October 2020

Kirsty Williams’s retirement is a blow and a missed opportunity for the Liberal Democrats

The party never truly tried to accrue any capital from its successful coalition in Wales – and now it faces a tough battle to hold on to Williams’s seat.   

By Stephen Bush

Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly member for Brecon and Radnorshire, a presence in the Senedd since its creation in 1999 and minister for education in the Labour-Liberal Democrat government since 2016, will stand down at the next election (due to be held in May 2021).

The departure of Williams is a major blow for the Liberal Democrats, not just electorally (of which, more below) but because she is widely respected in the Senedd, both for her work in opposition and in government. While the large overlap between the policy programmes of the Welsh Labour and Liberal Democrat parties facilitates a generally amicable coalition, it also helps that Williams and Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, are both coalitionists by instinct. (Drakeford has frequently said he believes coalitions lead to better government because they facilitate a more open argument about policy both within and outside of the government, while Williams, like all Liberal Democrats, is a committed coalitionist.)

Williams’s retirement from the political scene is a stark reminder of the repeated failure of the Liberal Democrats to talk up, or even seek to accrue, any political advantage from their successful coalition in Wales. Several Welsh Liberal Democrats were privately furious when a number of Liberal Democrat parliamentarians in England shared a tweet by Tesco that erroneously suggested the Welsh government had banned the sale of sanitary towels (it hadn’t, and the Welsh government has made sanitary towels available free in schools and community hubs for the poorest households). In general, the party’s Westminster leaders have rarely bigged up their achievements in Wales, though Vince Cable did attempt to do so in his valedictory interview with the New Statesman last year. Welsh Liberal Democrats may hope that Williams now receives the acknowledgement from the Westminster party that she has previously been denied. 

In the short term, Williams’s departure leaves the Liberal Democrats facing a tough fight to hold her seat next year. For the Liberal Democrats, holding a seat after the incumbent steps down is always perilous. Williams’s local popularity, which allowed her to hold on even in 2011, a disastrous year for the Liberal Democrats in Wales and, indeed, across the whole of the United Kingdom, as well as in 2016, when the party fared surprisingly poorly in Wales, will make it harder for the party to hold the seat.

[see also: The Welsh “firebreak” is a lockdown made in Westminster]

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Against that, there has probably never been a “less bad” time for Williams to stand down. Although Jane Dodds, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, failed to hold the seat in the 2019 election, she won it in a by-election earlier that year, and while no fresh candidate will be able to hold on to Williams’s personal vote and standing, she probably has a better chance of doing so than any other available candidate. Given that the party has few plausible targets for gains in 2021 (their only viable target, Cardiff Central, is held by Labour, who they will have been in a successful coalition with for the last five years), it is also a good election cycle for the party to fight Brecon in the manner of a by-election, should they so choose.

But if the Liberal Democrats do fail to hold Brecon and Radnorshire, which is certainly a possibility, this failure will have implications for other parties in Wales, too. They are consistently polling well enough that they would, in that event, win a seat in the mid and west Wales region via the party list (the Senedd’s proportional system is designed to compensate for the disproportionality of first-past-the-post via top-up seats) which, on current polling, would likely deprive the new Abolish the Welsh Assembly party of one of its most viable routes to a Senedd seat.

That would, in turn, make the process of forming a government after the next election slightly less fraught, because it is essentially impossible to construct a viable government consisting of members of Abolish and any other party. That said, for a variety of reasons it is, in any case, likely to be the most high-stakes and fractious set of post-election coalition negotiations Welsh politics has seen, unless some shift in the fortunes of either Welsh Labour, the Conservatives or Plaid Cymru allows one party or another to emerge as the indispensable choice in forming a government. Welsh Labour has managed this at every election since 1999, but, on current polling, it may struggle to do so again next May.

[see also: British devolution isn’t built for a crisis like Covid-19]

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