Could Gething face a contest, or a Senedd election?

Vaughan Gething
Vaughan Gething has faced criticism since he became first minister [Reuters]

Last week Labour won a thumping majority in the general election and, with the help of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, cleared the Tories out of Wales' Westminster seats.

Was the result enough to ease the problems of the under-fire First Minister, Vaughan Gething, weeks after he lost a vote of no confidence and with a split Labour group? Clearly not.

Just days into Sir Keir Starmer's government, a minister he sacked publicly attacked him in the Senedd.

Any sense the general election result could re-unite the Labour group quickly went away after Hannah Blythyn's speech - responded to by Mr Gething in equally dramatic fashion a day later.

All the while, sources have told BBC Wales that supporters of Mr Gething in the Senedd have been worried the first minister is facing an imminent leadership challenge, with rumours of Mr Gething's former rival Jeremy Miles being proposed as a replacement.

They have been concerned that it could come in the dying days of this current term - with the Senedd due to finish for the summer next week.

Others have played down the prospect. One source in the party said there's nothing in the offing, and that Mr Miles himself would not be interested in starting a challenge.

At the same time, with relations in the doldrums with the opposition and questions being raised about how Mr Gething can continue to govern, Labour MSs are openly asking if the Senedd could have to be dissolved for an election.

'Cleaned out'

The decision by Mr Gething to take £200,000 for his leadership bid from a company owned by a man prosecuted twice in the 2010s for environmental offenses has been a major factor in the splits in the Labour group.

It is also at the heart of the poor relations that exist with Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds.

There has never been any suggestion Mr Gething profited from the money, and he has always insisted that he followed the rules.

An election is being discussed because, as things stand, there appears to be no opposition Senedd member willing to do a deal and help a Vaughan Gething budget pass. He needs at least one to abstain.

If nothing changes, and the party is unwilling to change its leader, then Labour could find it impossible to perform a basic function of government.

Ministers could come to the conclusion the only way through is to hand the question of how Wales should be run over to the electorate.

If the opposition brought a specific vote of no confidence in the government and there was a repeat of last month's vote, that too could force an election, a source said.

Mike Hedges, Labour MS for Swansea West, openly discussed the idea during the Senedd debate on the vote of no confidence. "Let the voters decide," he said.

It is an option fraught with potential danger for Labour.

A recent poll by YouGov from late June and early July suggested Labour was on 27% of the vote, versus 23% for Plaid Cymru, 18% for the Conservatives and 18% for Reform UK.

One Labour Party observer of the situation, who believes there should be a change of leadership, warned an early election would see Labour "cleaned out" on current polling numbers.

"It's the one in less than two years they should be worried about."

A leadership contest?

The details of the challenge backers of Mr Gething have been speculating about have been pretty vague, although they expected it to come after the general election.

Two supporters of Mr Gething, who spoke to BBC Wales prior to the general election, said talk of a leadership challenge allegedly came up in chat on the campaign trail.

The first backer doubted that any alternative leader would be accepted without a contest.

“The political goodwill is not there for there to be some sort of smooth transition.

“The group is now quite divided really. It has been through a really bruising time.

The supporter said the current crisis is “worse” than the situation between Alun Michael and Rhodri Morgan around the turn of the century.

“There’s been leaks and that’s caused bad feeling - you have a meeting and a couple of hours later the meeting is reported in the media.

“We’re a new administration trying to get on with things and it is difficult to focus when there’s all this stuff going on in the background.”

“We’re not in a brilliant place politically with some of the things in the Senedd - feedback I’ve been getting on the doors is that people are cross with us on things like Senedd reform and 20mph," the backer added.

Both claimed that Jeremy Miles could have united the group - something strongly rejected by critics of Mr Gething, who say that none of the situation is the economy minister’s fault.

The second supporter of the supporters said that at “any moment in time Jeremy could have united the group by saying he supported Vaughan”.

“If he’s going to go in a different direction that’s going to tear the group apart.”

Would Mr Gething fight any potential challenge? Both supporters said he would, although the first backer did suggest that an interim leader could be possible.

“Everyone's got their limits," they said.

'It would have been a lie'

The blame aimed at Jeremy Miles demonstrates the rift that currently exists, and was met with disbelief from those on the other side of the camp.

The Labour Party observer said the major act Gething-backers think is disloyal is when Mr Miles said he would not have taken the £200,000 donation.

"If he had said the opposite it would have been a lie," they said, adding it was "the leader's job to unite the group".

“No one forced Vaughan to take the £200,000. No one forced Vaughan to sack Hannah. No one forced Vaughan to talk down to journalists, or any of this stuff.”

They said the concern over the leadership was over having a government “that can win in two year’s time”, rather than simply trying to replace Mr Gething.

They said "all the problems that existed before the general election still exist now". "Poor political management, lack of government strategy - Vaughan still doesn’t think there’s anything in his own behaviour that has gone wrong.”

They doubted Mr Miles would start a challenge himself. Their “gut feeling”, though, was that nothing would happen, doubting the appetite of Labour Senedd members to move against the first minister.

“It would take the group having to be brave and doing difficult things," they said.

Another Labour figure claimed that the first minister was “being advised by a small group of people who see his survival as a litmus test of what Labour is”.

The Labour figure expressed concerns over the next election: “He simply cannot face the electorate in two year's time. We would be sacrificing the party on one man’s wishes.”

“No one is enjoying this,” they said. “No one wants to sharpen a knife.”

The Labour group in the Senedd does not have the kind of system of rules that exist in the Conservative Party that would allow Senedd members to remove their leader.

“As a consequence”, the Labour figure said, “there isn’t an easy exit”.