This week in Welsh politics has been one of the most turbulent in recent memory. It started with a routine reshuffle of an already secure Welsh Labour Government. It ended with a tragic death, accusations of sleaze, and Wales’ political leaders facing an unanticipated barrage of criticism.
At first the reshuffle seemed uneventful enough. Carwyn Jones, approaching a decade as First Minister, appeared to be sensibly seeking to shore up the succession. New talent was promoted in the form of Hannah Blythyn, Eluned Morgan and Huw Irranca Davies, with Lord Elis Thomas, now sitting as an Independent, also being brought into Government.
But things soon started to unravel. The Communities Secretary and AM for Alyn and Deeside, Carl Sargeant, was sacked and suspended from the Labour Party due to unspecified allegations about his conduct. Any hope that the Senedd, as a younger and, arguably, more forward-looking institution than the Houses of Parliament, might be immune from the sexual harassment scandal proved futile.
Then on Tuesday, events took an even darker turn. Mr Sargeant was found dead at his home in North Wales. He had apparently taken his own life – without, it is claimed, ever knowing the exact nature of the allegations against him.
Cardiff Bay was sent reeling by the news. Senedd business was cancelled as a mark of respect. Having sacked Mr Sargeant just days before, Carwyn Jones described his former colleague’s death as a ‘great loss to our party and to the Senedd’. Other politicians lined up to pay tribute. Having looked in an impregnable position since Welsh Labour’s strong performance in the June General Election, Carwyn Jones suddenly found himself and his party under attack for their treatment of the former Communities and Children Secretary.
With Labour colleagues openly questioning the First Minister’s handling of the allegations, and UKIP threatening to call a vote of no confidence in his leadership, Carwyn Jones was forced into addressing the media on Thursday to justify his actions. In a highly charged and visibly emotional statement to the press, the First Minister affirmed that he “did all that I could to make sure everything was being done by the book” and that he had no alternative but to take the action that he did.
We will most likely never know what combination of circumstances ultimately drove Carl Sargeant to kill himself. We must also hope that this week’s tragic events do not deter further harassment victims from having the courage to come forward.
But the handling of this issue has raised important questions – for politicians across the spectrum, the media, and all of us who take part in public discourse. Should those accused have the right to anonymity? Should they be entitled, as Jeremy Corbyn has suggested, to some form of pastoral care? Should the police have been involved, if the allegations were as serious as has been implied? What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Many will be asking whether, if Mr Sargeant had been shown the same respect in the last week of his life that he was in death, he might still be with us today.
There is an important lesson to be learnt from this desperately sad week in Cardiff Bay. Not every politician is a Teflon-coated automaton, able to shrug off a scandal. Not every up and coming political staffer can weather inappropriate behaviour from their seniors with impunity in the name of career advancement. Whatever their failings, those who work in political life are as human as the rest of us. Ignore that, and the price - for the individuals involved, their families, and for our public life as a whole - could be heavy indeed.