AMs still have confidence in Cairns (sort of)

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

The Issue

Wales has been blessed with some dreadful Welsh Secretaries down the years, but it’s deemed necessary for Wales to retain a full-time voice in the UK Cabinet to “represent our interests”.

A string of pretty awful PR and negative announcements have come down the M4 over the last year – culminating in the scrapping of the Swansea Tidal Lagoon earlier this week.

Plaid Cymru decided the Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns MP (Con, Vale of Glamorgan), was failing to do his job of defending Welsh interests and took the unprecedented step of demanding a (symbolic) vote of no confidence in a UK Secretary of State.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • No longer has confidence in the Secretary of State for Wales to deliver major infrastructure projects, following the decision of the Westminster government not to support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon.
  • Has no confidence in the post of the Secretary of State for Wales and believes it should be abolished and replaced with a UK Council of Ministers with shared and equal decision-making powers.

Key Points

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales)
For (the motion): He failed, he has to go.

  • AMs were there to judge one man’s responsibility and failure to deliver manifesto commitments, particularly Cardiff-Swansea rail electrification and the Swansea Tidal Lagoon worth a combined £2billion.
  • Alun Cairns may not have taken these decisions personally, but he was in London to fight Wales’ corner; it might not be constitutionally appropriate to debate this, but it is politically appropriate.
  • Alun Cairns has refused to give evidence to Senedd committee inquiries and the Wales Office tweeted a “series of infantile memes” about the lagoon decision.
  • The day the Swansea tidal lagoon was scrapped, the UK Parliament voted through a £14billion expansion of Heathrow airport; Swansea could’ve marked the start of a new global industry.
  • The average annual energy bill increase per household for the lagoon would’ve been 30p.

Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.)
Against: Alun’s done a great job.

  • The UK Government have a duty to ensure public money is well spent; the model for the tidal lagoon needs to be looked at again.
  • Alun Cairns played a key role in developing the fiscal framework with the Welsh Government and long-term funding deal, worked on two city deals, Wylfa Newydd and kept a commitment to scrap Severn Crossing tolls – estimated to boost the Welsh economy by £100million a year.
  • The post of Welsh Secretary is vital in representing Welsh interests at UK level, particularly post-Brexit.

Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)
For: Swansea is really p*ssed off.

  • The tidal lagoon decision was met with “unbridled fury and anger” in Swansea; there’s also a sense of betrayal and devastation particularly among engineering graduates and companies who saw opportunities in the project.
  • There was no communication between the UK Government and developers for two years.
  • The position of Welsh Secretary is a colonial vestige.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)
Against: It’s constitutionally inappropriate.

  • It’s possible the whole Assembly would’ve agreed on a motion expressing disappointment for the lagoon decision, but Plaid Cymru has decided to play politics.
  • What would Plaid do if Westminister passed a no-confidence vote in a Welsh Government minister?
  • Alun Cairns has experience as a former AM and there have been plenty of achievements resulting from co-operation between the two governments, particularly on the economy.
  • It would be foolish to end the position of Welsh Secretary before inter-governmental working has been improved and strengthened.

Caroline Jones AM (UKIP, South Wales West)
Mixed views

  • She was disappointed by the lagoon decision, but Alun Cairns is only one minister out of 118 in London; he could do a better job of standing up for Welsh interests though.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda)
For: Alun Cairns is Westminster’s voice in Wales, not Wales’ voice in Westminster.

  • “Railways not electrified, bridges renamed in the name of the colonial prince, the tidal lagoon scrapped: that is what is being delivered by the Secretary of State for Wales.”
  • Billions can be found for nuclear power, refurbishing the Houses of Parliament, the DUP and Heathrow but nothing for the lagoon; “It’s almost as if they are trying to rub their failure to invest in Wales in our faces.”

Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central)
For: Red Tories etc.

  • Why was Labour against the motion? Are the Conservatives and Labour two sides of the same coin?

Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales)
For: Alun Cairns hasn’t been an effective Welsh Secretary.

  • The Senedd is entitled to express its views on the competence of UK ministers in their responsibilities towards Wales.
  • It was a threadbare excuse to say this shouldn’t be debated because of party politics as party politics was the reason AMs were there in the first place.
  • Ask the average person what Alun Cairns will be remembered for and it’ll be as “the man who torpedoed the tidal lagoon”, not for the fiscal framework.
  • As a sceptic on green energy, tidal and wave energy seem better long-term prospects than wind power.
  • “I must say….we’ve seen some duds holding that office (Welsh Secretary), but I think Alun Cairns will be way down the list on the basis of the historical experience.”

Welsh Government Response

Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

  • The UK Government made a commitment to the people of south-west Wales and had an independent report saying the lagoon was a “no-regrets” investment. Instead, we’ve “witnessed a depressing catalogue of prevarication, obfuscation, delay, and a reluctance” to take it forward.
  • The Tories need a “reality check” when listing Alun Cairns achievements; he wasn’t involved in fiscal framework negotiations other than a photo opportunity alongside the real negotiator, David Gauke.
  • He found very little to disagree with in Simon Thomas’ opening statement, but it would be a mistake to pass motions of no confidence in ministers who are unaccountable to the Senedd.
  • If the motion were carried, the subject would often have to resign – but that wouldn’t be the case here; the Senedd shouldn’t be an outpost for gesture politics.
  • We have to think about how this can be put right in the future whilst registering disappointment in the lagoon decision.


Despite Neil Hamilton’s contribution, he voted against.

A softer-worded, amended version of the motion – which “regrets” the lagoon decision, Alun Cairns’ failure to stand up for Wales and calling for better inter-governmental co-operation via a Council of Ministers -was passed by 31 votes to 18.

I understand the argument that this was nothing more than a gesture because it wouldn’t have carried any weight.

Given the circumstances though, there’s nothing wrong in flagging up a complete failure of “Wales’ voice at Westminister” to do their job when it directly impacts Wales, as well as requesting a replacement. Alun isn’t on his first or second strike here, but his fourth or fifth.

Having said that, Alun Cairns is doing so much damage to the image and reputation of the UK Government in Wales, it might not necessarily be a bad thing for him to stay where he is.

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