Perhaps over the coming days it will become clearer whether Plaid in the Assembly really intended to have their leader elected as First Minister with the support of the Tories and UKIP, or whether they were just trying to make a point, and were as surprised as outside observers to receive the unanimous support of both of those parties. I’m prepared to believe that there was no deal done in advance, which makes the second theory more credible than the first.
What is clear is that if the sole remaining Lib Dem had voted the other way, we would now have a Plaid First Minister, even if that result was more by accident than design. How workable would it have been for a party with 12 seats out of 60 to govern effectively without a coalition or some other less formal sort of arrangement with the other parties?
Well, there’s a great deal that a government can do without needing to win a single vote on the floor of the Assembly. Once the First Minister has been elected, then in essence, government only needs to avoid defeat on its budget and on any vote of no confidence tabled by the opposition. As long as it’s prepared to negotiate on the budget, and as long as the other parties which put it into power are prepared to support it in any confidence vote, a government which avoids any contentious legislation can exercise power within existing legislation quite easily. What it could not expect is to be able to implement any manifesto pledges which do not attract the support of other parties. It would be a change of management, but probably not much of a change of direction.
In reality, however, even that limited level of co-operation between Plaid, Tories, and UKIP would be seen as being exactly that – co-operation – and it is likely that there would be a political price to pay. Who would pay that price is an interesting question; certainly Plaid would suffer (initially at least), but I also wonder what grass roots Tories, never mind UKIP members, would think about their party backing a Plaid Government without any formal participation in it. And who knows, perhaps seeing that there is an alternative to Labour might lead to other voting changes as well.
The bigger question is whether the price would be worth it. And by that, I don’t simply mean in terms of the next election or two, but in terms of the longer term. I’ve posted before that I thought Plaid were making a strategic and tactical mistake in ruling out options in advance of the election (and having ruled them out so firmly, being seen to be apparently doing the opposite once elected, whatever the real truth may be, isn’t the brightest start). I don't believe that nationalists should ever have any objection in principle to working with any or all other parties if that advances the cause of Wales. The question is about weighing up whether the long term gain for the national project outweighs the short term pain for one or more parties, and that’s a much bigger question than deciding whether to be in government or opposition.I’d really like to believe that someone had done that thinking and calculation before yesterday’s vote, and had thought through the implications. But I rather suspect not.