So the deal is done.

“The Co-operation Agreement” has been signed between the Labour government and the third largest party, Plaid Cymru.

Following a low key – albeit tasteful, alternative rose garden podium moment on the Senedd steps, Wales has a detailed plan for stable government, for the next three years at least.

Forty days before last May’s Senedd election, I wrote in this column that “.... governing options seem pretty limited. That’s a pity. Surely a tectonic plate-shifting pandemic that’s transformed the status of devolution and the visibility of the Welsh Government is exactly the occasion where parties might keep their options open about imaginative collaboration? Replacing Labour after 21 years in power might be a shot in the arm for Welsh democracy. But the electorate seems inclined to disagree and ignore that at your peril”.

Sixty percent of voters supported Labour and Plaid in this year’s election so a deal between them is likely to prove popular. Despite the obvious challenges that lie ahead, both parties deserve praise for formulating an agreement that offers stability and has a potentially radical agenda at its heart.

Read the details of the deal between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Government

At one level, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about another in a series of party agreements or co-operations in the Senedd. As Cathy Owens has pointed out, there’ve been 13 cross-party deals since the advent of devolution, ranging from full-blown coalitions to much more limited pacts.

With the modest nomenclature “The Co-operation Agreement”, this deal had a certain inevitability about it once the post-election dust had settled. Why?

Labour had a very good election and emerged with 30 seats (technically two short of a working majority as David Rees is in the Deputy Llywydd’s chair).

Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru had a pretty shocking election when measured against the aspirations of its leader, around whom the party’s whole election strategy revolved. I interviewed Price for Planet magazine before the election where he talked boldly of his ambition to be First Minister and how anything short of that would be the equivalent of failure. Emerging with just one extra seat and losing its totemic foothold in the valleys left Price bruised and in a pretty invidious negotiating position. So, getting to this point is an achievement in itself, whilst also begging the question of whether Plaid’s role as a party is to agitate and influence or to govern itself.

The Co-operation Agreement sets out 46 policy areas upon which Labour and Plaid have agreed to work together.

These range from free school meals for all primary pupils and expanding free childcare, to action on second homes, ending homelessness and plans for free social care and the reform of council tax.

CARDIFF, WALES - DECEMBER 01: First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price sign the Co-operation Agreement at the Welsh Government Building at Cathays Park on December 01, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales.
First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price sign the Co-operation Agreement at Cathays Park, Cardiff, on Wednesday

The two parties have championed this as a radical programme, fit for our challenging times.

But peeling back the lid, the agreement is unquestionably something of a curate’s egg. Policies range from the properly bottomed out, to those resembling more an aspirational wish list, replete with the terminology of “explore”, “consider” and “setting up an expert group” so beloved of ministers and civil servants alike.

To be fair, I can buy the self-proclaimed radical tag, one undoubtedly helped by a healthier than anticipated budget settlement and spare Covid cash (the Welsh budget is expected to be £1.6bn larger than anticipated under pre-election spending plans). Still, for political policies to properly deserve the radical label, they must have a confirmed route for implementation. Otherwise, it’s a case of fine words scribbled on a white board.

So, what’s in it for each party?

For the First Minister himself, there’s the issue of personal political legacy. I’m sure Mark Drakeford wants to be remembered for more than just being a reassuring and competent manager during a global pandemic. But it’s more than that, otherwise why didn’t Labour look instead to the single Lib Dem MS, Jane Dodds for support?

For Welsh Labour, the deal provides security and a helping hand for delivering some of its manifesto commitments, for three years at least. The agreement provides cover for going further and more radically on social policy, helped by that expected budget increase, but also underpinned by having another party on board.

As the First Minister told Labour’s special conference, this is not a choice between the deal with Plaid or no deal, but between the three-year co-operation agreement and a series of shorter, hastily negotiated, one-off deals.

Three years of guaranteed support for its budget and a sound foundation for delivering its programme for government in exchange for some major buy-ins to nation-building is hardly a great concession for Welsh Labour. Neither is the fact that an additional political party has helped shape and broaden that programme an inherent threat to its hegemony, as delivery and implementation mostly remain in Labour hands.

What of Plaid Cymru? I’m tempted to say that the deal is low risk because the party is currently going nowhere. This was the third election with three very different leaders at which Plaid didn’t live up to its hopes or expectations. Whether the party could have done any better in 2021 is of course a difficult question, given it faced a “Drakeford wave” amongst Welsh-identifying voters.

And yet a better result was possible. Fourteen instead of 13 seats, and a vote share which went up instead of down, would not only have looked psychologically better, but more fundamentally, would have deprived Labour of its majority. Plaid Cymru couldn’t even manage to pick up the lion’s share of the independence-supporting vote, despite making it the principal thrust of its election manifesto.

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To be fair, it’s still conceivable that Adam Price can pull off the almighty juggle of managing the opposition party challenge and scrutiny role alongside claiming credit for some policy successes – but that’s a heck of a task perception wise and will require clever messaging and an accomplished campaigning strategy.

CARDIFF, WALES - DECEMBER 01: First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price sign the Co-operation Agreement at the Welsh Government Building at Cathays Park on December 01, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales.
Adam Price at the agreement signing on Wednesday

Yet few would dispute the genuine Plaid Cymru stamp across the co-operation package. And in terms of making the Welsh Government commit to things that Labour MSs had previously voted against or not been interested in, credit where credit’s due. But Labour will inevitably be working just as hard to claim its own “wins”, not only in the social media air war, but through government departments, set piece events with ministers, and maintaining the networks of power and influence that come from being the ruling party.

This fundamental challenge for Plaid Cymru, translating delivery of the co-operation agreement into political popularity, is fundamentally linked to the governance of the agreement and the machinery behind it.

And there’s plenty of machinery! A joint oversight board, joint policy committees and a co-operation agreement unit staffed by civil servants. We’re told that “the parties will rely on good will, trust and agreed procedures to facilitate the delivery of the shared programme of work while respecting each party’s distinct identity”.

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There’s some impressive creativity too – the creation of designated members (who look like quasi-ministers?) is a clever move as it protects party independence and the resources and status that come with it. Plaid has also secured two special advisers, which is an important win, but it’s going to be a strange and unusual role, working to a Labour-only cabinet, and on a day-to-day basis with a Labour-appointed Spad team. Providing “day-to-day support for the range of areas covered in the Co-operation Agreement” is the remit of those advisers, and it’s normal for special advisers not to on party political or campaigning matters. There isn’t an obvious precedent for this kind of arrangement but overall, this looks imaginative and might be critical for holding the co-operation agreement together. However, I’d wager that to do this for three years is going to require emotional and personal skills as much as committees and political savvy.

The more trust and cohesion is developed between Plaid Cymru and the government, the more difficult it becomes to create political distance as we approach elections and other tests. To step away from the jargon, Plaid Cymru needs to find a way to make sure the deal gets implemented, and to then campaign on its specific achievements.

What of the future? There are many layers to this.

There’s Mark Drakeford and his personal future. Most expected him to stand down mid-way through this sixth Senedd, at the end of 2023. Rather neatly, that coincides with the planned end of the three-year Co-operation Agreement. That would give a bit over two years to disentangle the parties before the 2026 election, which many of us hope will be electing 90 MSs through a much fairer voting system.

CARDIFF, WALES - DECEMBER 01: First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price sign the Co-operation Agreement at the Welsh Government Building at Cathays Park on December 01, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales.
Mark Drakeford at the agreement signing

Whoever takes over from Drakeford won’t face the same bizarrely fortuitous context for the 2026 election. Neither will she or he have long to become known to the Welsh public. It will then be 27 years since Labour gained power in the Senedd. Labour will be buttressed by massive constituency majorities earned in 2021, though the hope for the opposition parties will – quite fairly by the way – be that a new electoral system will allow a more balanced Senedd to emerge.

The “Time for Change” slogans of the opposition parties are bound to resonate more powerfully than in an election framed by a global pandemic.

Plaid Cymru will need to use the breathing space at the close of the deal and before the election to reinvent itself and to better differentiate itself from Labour. But the lesson for Plaid, and indeed for the Conservatives, must be that strategies and messages have to be adaptable and nimble. You have to play against the team in front of you, not the one that was on the pitch the week before.

Meanwhile, what about the Welsh Conservatives? They seem to be struggling post-election.

The party faces a simple choice as far as I can see. To hitch its wagon to the muscular unionism of the centre and do a Three Wise Monkeys impression, waving a Union Jack whilst oblivious to a changing political climate in Wales, especially around our national future. Or, make better use of some younger, talented MSs to start a process of building a positive, constructive, Welsh-focused centre-right opposition that can build up credibility and then appeal to groups who remain as far away as ever from voting Conservative in Senedd elections.

A fast-developing constitutional debate will, of course, continue to develop in parallel to this new governance arrangement by our new independent commission. While that exercise sits firmly outside of government control, it will no doubt speak to and reflect the dynamics within Welsh democracy at a time when the future of the UK is widely acknowledged to be under serious threat. The nature of governance in Wales and the way parties co-operate can’t be separated from the discussion about what type of Wales we want, and how we want to relate to our neighbours.

What makes this deal between Labour and Plaid different is that this time around, we have a power-sharing consensus set against a reserved model of legislative devolution with greater financial and fiscal autonomy – that is, the tools for delivery. Aligned to this is the prospect of a fit for purpose Senedd by 2026 with an electoral system even more likely to necessitate co-operation or coalitions.

As I’ve said before, a political willingness to collaborate, valuing partnership and building consensus, whilst maintaining an eye for challenge and scrutiny are good things in themselves and surely deserve a chance.

Judging the success of the deal will rest on its delivery of some very ambitious promises.

But, by the time of the next Senedd elections, we might be in a position where politicians communicate honestly and openly with voters about the prospects for co-operation, consensus and compromise.

* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of the Wales women’s international football team.