Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 08:33 UK

Morgan's bumpy path to the top

By Phil Parry
BBC Wales News

Rhodri Morgan
Rhodri Morgan became Welsh Labour leader after three attempts

Rhodri Morgan will leave centre stage as one of the biggest names Welsh politics has seen.

He became known for his colourful turn of phrase and his man-of-the-people image, but also to his supporters as the Welsh Labour leader who steadied the ship after his predecessor's abrupt departure.

Even his political opponents viewed him as a decent man who prided himself on having statistics at his fingertips to bat away questions.

But they believe they also saw someone who did not like being pressed at First Minister's Questions, and could become sensitive when asked about policy, with weekly tussles in the Senedd between him and Conservative leader Nick Bourne.

A former civil servant, Mr Morgan entered frontline politics late at 47, becoming MP for Cardiff West in 1987, and it was far from a smooth ride to the top in Welsh politics.

After the 1997 general election the new prime minister, Tony Blair, refused to make him a Welsh Office minister, and in 1999 Blair backed Alun Michael as Welsh leader instead.

While Mr Morgan claimed later that he had been "shafted" by Tony Blair, he was said not to have borne a a grudge.

Characteristically, he has talked of one of his proudest achievements not in terms of some sweeping political statement but a change in education policy - the introduction of the Foundation Phase in early years education in Wales, which encourages children aged between three and seven to learn through play.

As an opposition MP he was perhaps best known for his attacks on the Conservative government's management of the NHS and the activities of quangos, in particular the Welsh Development Agency (WDA). To many he is the man who lit the fuse for 'the bonfire of the quangos'.

Rhodri Morgan being interviewed in Cardiff Bay
Born: 29 Sept, 1939, Cardiff
Educated: Oxford, Harvard
Career: civil servant; Cardiff West MP 1987 - 2001; Cardiff West AM 1999 - 2009; Welsh first minister 2000 - 2009
Family: Married Julie, 1967, two daughters, one son
Quote: "Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?" (Winner of the Plain English Campaign's Foot in Mouth award)

That is the context in which to view what Mr Morgan sees as another notable political achievement.

He was first minister when the WDA and other quangos, including the Wales Tourist Board and education body Elwa, were abolished and brought under direct ministerial control in 2006.

But there were significant defeats in political battles during his career. One was over the creation of a barrage across Cardiff Bay.

That barrage was eventually built, helping to spark the re-development of the area.

As an opposition MP he campaigned against the barrage. Yet ironically, as first minister his office looked out on the revitalised area of the Welsh capital it helped to create.

He campaigned strongly for the creation of the assembly and challenged then Welsh Secretary Ron Davies for the right to lead Labour in the new institution - but lost.

However, a period of intense turmoil in Welsh politics began less than a year before the assembly was due to open. The cause was Mr Davies's resignation after his "moment of madness" on Clapham Common in London in 1998, when he met a man and said he was robbed at knifepoint.

Asked on BBC Two's Newsnight whether he would stand again to lead Labour in Wales, Mr Morgan came out with one of his classic lines - "Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?"

Don't look back - move on, move forward
Rhodri Morgan on the lessons he has learned

A puzzled Jeremy Paxman asked if that was Welsh for "yes". It was - albeit in typically Morganesque style.

There followed a divisive battle between Mr Morgan and Alun Michael, amid accusations that the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth had been "parachuted in" by Tony Blair to continue the New Labour project. Mr Michael won, and made his defeated rival his economy minister when the assembly opened for business in May 1999.

But Mr Michael lasted only nine months as the assembly's first leader. Labour did much worse than expected in the first assembly election, winning only 28 of the 60 seats, and Mr Michael formed a minority administration.

He was facing a vote of no confidence when he resigned.

Rhodri and Julie Morgan going to vote in the 2007 assembly election
Rhodri and Julie Morgan, MP for Cardiff North, were married in 1967

And so, in February 2000, Mr Morgan finally made it to the pinnacle.

He soon made his mark, not least changing his title from first secretary to first minister.

He also emphasised the differences between Labour in Wales and Westminster. He promised "clear red water", and the agenda he pursued as first minister was more left-of-centre than the Westminster government.

It was an agenda perhaps best symbolised by a policy his administration introduced of ending all prescription charges, something later pursued in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Rhodri Morgan has also been prepared to embrace coalition politics in the assembly as the way to advance Labour policies.

He formed governments with first the Liberal Democrats and - even more controversially for many at Labour's grassroots - Plaid Cymru. But he has not done so with the Conservatives, having repeatedly condemned the effect of Margaret Thatcher's policies on Wales, which may have something to do with his refusal to join forces with them at assembly level.

His alliance with the six-strong Welsh Liberal Democrat group followed the 2003 election. After the 2007 election, after weeks of negotiations, he signed up to a coalition government with Plaid, the party regarded as the main political opposition by many in Welsh Labour.

He has served with Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones as his deputy for more than two years.

Rhodri Morgan gives Tony Blair a Welsh rugby shirt, watched by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, in Swansea in 2005
A rugby shirt gift, but Morgan and Blair saw different shades of red

Central to the deal were moves towards holding a referendum on giving the assembly full law-making powers "as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the assembly term". Mr Morgan will have known only too well the deep unease this will have caused among some Labour MPs.

He has also had to steer a middle course during spats between AMs and MPs over the system from 2006 of creating Welsh laws with the system of legislative competence orders.

His time in office has also seen widely-publicised gaffes, and his judgement has been questioned.

In 2004 he was widely criticised for failing to attend D-day commemorations in Normandy, instead going to a meeting about plans to bring the Ryder Cup golf tournament to Wales.

At first he stood by the decision, but later said he was "deeply sorry" for any offence caused to war veterans.

Another low point was his refusal on an appearance on BBC One's Question Time to state his opinion on the Iraq war.

His argument at the time that he was no longer an MP and had not considered the arguments prompted an incredulous response.

Mr Morgan's health has also been a source of concern - shortly after shaking hands on the deal with Plaid in the summer of 2007, he was admitted to hospital with heart problems, and was treated for two partially-blocked arteries.

But he adopted a healthier diet, lost a lot of weight, and within months was telling Labour conference delegates he was "fighting fit and ready for the fray."

His individual style was reinforced this summer during the recess when he spent his usual holiday in a caravan in Mwnt on the Ceredigion coast, but said he was "available to make any emergency decision as and when required."

That prompted The Guardian to observe that Mr Morgan "offers a lesson to his London Labour counterparts on how to do thing with common sense and good grace."

While it has long been known that he would announce his departure as first minister around the time of his 70th birthday on 29 September, he is expected to stay AM for Cardiff West until the next assembly election in May 2011. His wife, Julie Morgan, has been MP for Cardiff North since 1997.

In polls Mr Morgan has consistently featured as one of the few recognisable figures in Welsh politics.

Supporters and opponents alike agree he will be a hard act to follow.

Print Sponsor

Coalition 'unlikely' says Morgan
15 May 07 |  Wales
Blair 'shafted' me, says Morgan
11 May 07 |  Wales
Morgan attacked for Paisley joke
28 Feb 07 |  Wales
Morgan 'probably' opposed to war
16 Apr 07 |  Wales
Senedd speech prompts royal laugh
01 Mar 06 |  Wales
Morgan's gobbledegook award No. 2
13 Dec 05 |  Wales
Morgan 'sorry' over D-Day row
06 Jun 04 |  Wales
Morgan denies Queen 'faux pas'
21 Jul 04 |  Wales

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific