LABOUR and the Liberal Democrats have secretly agreed in principle to form a coalition Assembly Government after next year's election, the Western Mail has been told.
Under the deal, the Liberal Democrats would throw a lifeline to Rhodri Morgan in return for two Cabinet posts, the position of Presiding Officer and a number of policy commitments, with the introduction of proportional representation (PR) in council elections at the top of the list.
Last night both party leaders denied emphatically they had been involved in secret talks about a coalition. But senior sources insisted to the Western Mail that representatives of the two parties had been discussing a deal for months.
The prospect of a new Lib-Lab pact is already causing uproar, with both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives saying a vote for the Liberal Democrats would effectively mean a vote for Labour. Meanwhile, a senior Labour councillor told the Western Mail that any proposal to have PR in local government would be bitterly resisted by grassroots party members.
Under the elements of the coalition deal said to have been agreed so far at secret talks, it is suggested that Liberal Democrat Assembly leader Mike German would be Deputy First Minister and Finance Minister, with Brecon and Radnor AM Kirsty Williams Culture Minister. Cardiff Central AM Jenny Randerson would become the Presiding Officer.
It has been suggested that secret discussions have been going on between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for several months, although only a small number of people in both parties are aware of that. It seems the Liberal Democrats may have decided it is more worthwhile concluding another deal with Labour than pursuing the alternative option of a so-called rainbow coalition with Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. The opposition parties have co-operated closely at the Assembly since Labour lost its effective majority last year.
Slotting Mr German into the Cabinet as Finance Minister would neatly fill the gap caused by the departure of the current post holder Sue Essex, who is not standing again in her Cardiff North constituency. Kirsty Williams would replace Labour Culture Minister Alun Pugh, who is expected to lose his Clwyd West seat to the Tories in next year's election.
Mrs Randerson, who, like Mr German, served in the Lib-Lab administration that ran Wales between 2000 and 2003, was recently installed as chair of the committee drawing up new standing orders for the Assembly. This could be seen as an apprenticeship for taking over as Presiding Officer from Lord Elis-Thomas, who has been under fire over the past week for allegedly forcing out Assembly Clerk Paul Silk.
Assembly Conservative leader Nick Bourne said,
"There is something quite distasteful about the idea of divvying up jobs before the people of Wales have had a chance to cast their votes. In this case, it would mean that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would effectively be a vote for Labour.
"So far as the Presiding Officer's post is concerned, that is not in the gift of the Government. The Presiding Officer is elected by all AMs in a secret ballot."
Plaid Cymru director of communications Helen Mary Jones said, "This is the smoking gun of Welsh politics. We have known that Rhodri Morgan has looked with envy to the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell who has a majority thanks to his coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
"The idea that in a back room Labour and their Liberal buddies were plotting together to form a coalition without telling the people of Wales is distasteful.
"If Rhodri Morgan and Michael German intend to govern together, they should contest the election on a joint ticket. One thing is clear: there is no point in anyone who wants change voting for the Liberal Democrats."
A senior Labour councillor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Western Mail, "The idea of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats has been mentioned in Labour Party circles. Any attempt to impose PR in local government will be bitterly resisted at grassroots level in the Labour Party. The vast majority of us are totally against it. It takes away people's right to elect councillors from local communities and is likely to make it easier for party machines to get rid of awkward councillors who don't always toe the party line.
"If this is what is being contemplated, Rhodri Morgan should come and talk to ordinary members of the party and find out the strength of feeling."
Last night an Assembly Government spokesman said, "This is the product of a feverish imagination. There have been absolutely no discussions between the First Minister and Mike German with respect to a coalition. When there was last a partnership government, discussions revolved entirely around a policy programme, not individuals and their positions."
Mr German said, "I must tell you this is all very fanciful - it's the first I've heard of it.
"Our party conference resolution instructed us last time to enter a coalition on the basis of an agreed policy programme. PR in local government is an absolute given, and everyone knows there is no point in having discussions with us unless we get that."