Despite their significant media exposure I think it’s fair to say that so far UKIP’s main successes have come at the ballot box and not at the dispatch box. That the party serves as a repository for protest votes rather than enacting detailed policy is evidenced through the record of long-standing elected members. In his 17 years European Parliament Nigel Farage has authored not a single report legislative or otherwise, or much else really. Even the Daily Mail called the 22 UKIPers in Brussels “The laziest party in Europe”. Mr Farage’s main skill is getting airtime whilst the cameras are rolling in the plenary chamber, but the fruits of his less than labourious mandate were colourfully and publicly recounted to him by a Belgian MEP recently.
However last Thursday they had another breakthrough. In getting seven Members elected to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff they now have a significant mandate in a devolved assembly for the first time. This team of seven was quick to partake in the traditions of splits and divisions that have accompanied UKIP in Brussels by launching a coup against itself. Newly elected Assembly Member Neil Hamilton (Yes, that Neil Hamilton) ousted previous UKIP Wales leader Nathan Gill by four votes to three on the first day!
The next day the UKIP seven managed to contribute to one of the biggest upsets in recent British political history. In an extraordinary and unforeseen alignment UKIP joined the Tory members in voting in favour of installing Welsh nationalist leader Leanne Wood as First Minister instead of Labour leader and previous First Minister Carwyn Jones. This most unusual axis left the vote for First Minister tied at 29 each, meaning neither Jones nor Wood could be appointed First Minister and the session was adjourned. The Assembly has until 2 June to resolve the issue or Wales will have to hold fresh elections.
No-one knows exactly what will happen next but with only 12 out of 60 members of the Assembly there is surly no way that Leanne Wood and her party, Plaid Cymru, can lead the Assembly Government, especially when reliant on Tory and UKIP support. But in de-railing the constitutional process it would seem that in one short afternoon session Hamilton and the UKIP seven have achieved more of significance than any of the 40 or so UKIP MEPs who’ve been elected over the previous 17 years.
The timing isn’t great for Carwyn Jones and the Labour Party in Wales or the Assembly government itself. The threatened closure of the UK’s biggest steel plant in Port Talbot poses a near catastrophic threat the local economy as well as the wider British and European steel industries. Threats to the industry come from overproduction in China and Cardiff has tried desperately to broker a deal with London, Brussels and Beijing to keep the plant. It’s a tough ask, especially given George Osborne’s new-found love of Chinese investment and whether or not they succeed will be a reflection on what devolved powers actually mean, not just in terms of the British constitutional settlement, but in the global economy.
Meanwhile the 23 June referendum gets ever closer and with Wales’ government keen to gain as big a ‘remain’ vote as possible across the country it will wonder why staunchly pro-European Welsh nationalists are being supported by UKIP. Labour allege the others are in cahoots, Plaid and the Tories say there it was not pre-planned and a breakaway UKIP is now considering backing Labour, it’s been quite a week. Devolution brings strange partners in power-sharing and opposition-sharing.