Vaughan Gething might be safer than a Tory leader like Boris Johnson but the knives are out

Vaughan Gething after arriving for the votes in two Senedd debates involving his campaign -Credit:Senedd TV
Vaughan Gething after arriving for the votes in two Senedd debates involving his campaign -Credit:Senedd TV

Vaughan Gething didn't get a honeymoon period as Welsh Labour leader and things aren't getting any easier. Less than 50 days into his tenure as Wales' First Minister, he has had his most bruising week. Even loyalists are saying that his reputation cannot recover. "Such a shame," one ally of his said to me today, the morning after the Senedd vote that has made everything worse, "he could have been good".

The only things in his favour are that Labour party rules make it difficult to oust a party leader and the fact a General Election is imminent. In recent years we have become au fait with the Conservatives' 1922 committee and the way MPs can send a secret letter which, when enough letters are sent, can topple trigger a leadership race. Plaid Cymru has its own system, where every second year at their autumn conference, a vote is held to (usually) reconfirm support for the leader.

But Welsh Labour has no such mechanism to oust a leader, no matter how unpopular they get. The only way that can happen is via a Senedd no confidence vote, or if the leader themselves chooses to stand down. A Senedd no confidence vote is a much riskier way for rebels to try to oust a leader as it doesn't cleanly trigger a party leadership contest; it destabilises a government.

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There is one precedent but the circumstances were different then. Twenty four years ago, it happened in the first year of the devolved administration when then First Secretary Alun Michael, who represented Cardiff South and Penarth before Mr Gething, quit before he lost a no-confidence vote tabled by the opposition which he was set to lose.

The difference then, however, was that Labour only had 28 seats in the 60-seat Senedd, and Mr Michael's minority administration was in a weak position without a formal agreement with another party to support him. Mr Michael's successor Rhodri Morgan entered into a coalition with the Lib Dems a few months later to ensure he did not face the same fate.

Today, Mr Gething has both more MSs - exactly half of the 60 in the Senedd - and a co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. It's unlikely that this time Labour rebels would be able to get rid of their leader quickly without getting their hands dirty.

The Senedd electoral maths is also complicated by the fact that former Plaid Cymru MS Rhys ap Owen is serving a suspension. At the moment there are 30 Labour MSs to 29 opposition members. And even when he returns, the convention in the Senedd is that, in the event of a tied vote, the speaker, Plaid's Elin Jones, votes with the status quo. That means it is likely that it would take all the opposition parties to vote against him and one Labour member to rebel for Mr Gething to lose a vote of no confidence.

What remains potentially more problematic for Mr Gething is how he will navigate a split Senedd next year after the co-operation agreement with Plaid ends in December 2024. Getting his spending plans through the Senedd with the opposition aligned against him and his own party unhappy, could prove a huge stumbling block.

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to capitalise on the row this week, telling a packed Commons there is a "need for transparency and an investigation". And the signs of discontent from within Labour are also becoming increasingly public.

It is hard to overstate how dramatic the intervention of Lee Waters in the debate was. We are used to seeing rebellions in Westminster. We saw Labour demote shadow ministers who stood up against Keir Starmer's position on Gaza and despite almost constant commentary on Tory rebellions, it's impossible to remember a time when different factions were not rebelling against something or other. But in Wales, it's different and Mr Waters is no obscure backbench rebel. He's an ex-minister, and thanks to 20mph - the law he spearheaded - a well-known face.

Vaughan Gething didn't have the support of his Senedd group before this row, as more of his colleagues backed Jeremy Miles. But now the cracks are growing. The row over donations is well rehearsed, but it has now gone beyond that.

The silence in the chamber at Tuesday's First Minister's Questions was deafening. When, the following day, both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives got their ducks in a row and put up two different motions about donations, you'd expect the Labour benches to be full of members showing their support. Instead, they were half full. The cabinet's seats were far from full.

By not attending, and by not explaining why the First Minister was otherwise engaged, Mr Gething's camp allowed the opposition to take pot shot after pot shot to say he had disrespected the whole institution by not attending.

Particularly in Labour circles, the loyalty to the cause usually trumps any personal disagreements, but that is not the case this time.

Vaughan Gething was not in the chamber to hear Lee Waters deliver a measured, meticulous takedown on the whole donations row. Whether it is a coincidence he arrived seconds after the contribution, I don't know but again, the silence was telling.

Even on his most difficult of weeks, Rishi Sunak has walked into the Commons to hoots and cheers. There was no equivalent when, eventually, Vaughan Gething arrived in the Siambr on Wednesday. Caerphilly MS Hefin David repeated his one man defence of the party's leader in his response to Plaid Cymru's call for a cap on political donations. His backbench neighbour Alun Davies could not hide his disbelief at the words coming from his colleague's mouth.

Lee Waters is tribal and passionate, and when irate, his passion has been known to get the better of him. None of that was on display. He didn't just repeat comments he had already made, but went further, telling his party's leader he should repay the money.

The Llanelli MS said: "The ministerial code says, and I quote, ''ministers remain personally responsible for adhering to the code and the decisions they take'. It doesn't need an independent arbiter to uphold; it's a code of honour. Nor is the ministerial code a legal contact. The test isn't how to find a loophole; it's a code of ethics.

"Now, this situation can be put right. I hope it is put right. But the first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem. And it would not be a sign of weakness to say that it was a mistake to take the donation and, now all the facts are known, to give it back. It can still be done, in my view it should be done, and sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing, but you rarely regret it in the end."

Alun Davies reacts to Hefin David's statement in the Senedd -Credit:Senedd TV
Alun Davies reacts to Hefin David's statement in the Senedd -Credit:Senedd TV

Mr Waters has since declined an offer to speak publicly after his Senedd statement, but he did write on LinkedIn: "Put the politics of all this to one side, I’ve been wrestling with my conscience and judgment over the last couple of months about calling out something I feel Is wrong. But it’s rarely that simple.

"After lots of agonising I stuck with my instinct and set out my concerns in public. It was really hard. I’ve never felt so anxious about a speech before. And no doubt there will be implications but as I said in the Senedd. Sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing, but you rarely regret it in the end".

Labour members from all levels have now broken ranks. Cynon Valley Labour MP Beth Winter has said the same (although she has her own gripes with the party), and Rhondda Cynon Taf leader, Labour stalwart Andrew Morgan also said he wouldn't have taken it.

Jane Hutt was left to bat for Vaughan Gething. A Labour left-wing diehard, Mark Drakeford loyalist, she had to stand there front of centre taking hit after hit from the opposition about her leader not attending the majority of two debates about his future. When he did attend, he didn't speak, so she just had to plough on while he sat next to her watching.

It is very hard for a Labour politician to argue with the point made by Conservative Samuel Kurtz when calling on politicians of all colours to back the Tory motion for an independent inquiry. "If there's nothing to hide, why vote against our motion? If there's nothing to hide, then surely you'd welcome the opportunity to be fully exonerated. If there's nothing to hide, then join us and vote with the Welsh Conservatives".

The consequences Lee Waters speaks of could well be his political career. Selections for the next Senedd have not yet happened, and can't until the changes to Senedd reform are completed. Until it is known which two Westminster constituencies are paired to make the new 16 constituencies, MSs do not know who they are going up against to be top of the list.

If, and there is some fear this will ring true, time runs out, the Labour hierarchy could decide to put candidates in place via a panel and not member votes. That panel would be appointed by Welsh Labour, and Welsh Labour's new general secretary is widely being touted as Stewart Owadally, Vaughan Gething's right hand man in the campaign.

No-one I've spoken to expects it to be donations that will sink Vaughan Gething, but he is now teetering. But the danger with being so close to the edge is it just takes one more wrong decision for something to tip you over. Just ask Humza Yousaf.