Carwyn Jones could find himself as Labour’s most senior minister within six months after the Cardiff assembly’s counsel-general was chosen to succeed Rhodri Morgan as leader of Welsh Labour.

Mr Jones, virtually unknown outside Wales, predictably defeated rivals Edwina Hart and Huw Lewis in a ballot of party members and trade unions.

Seen as the “continuity candidate” and a “safe pair of hands”, the 42-year-old could become the Boris Johnson of his party – in power while his party is not – should the Tories win the general election.

He will become first minister next week at a difficult time for Welsh Labour with widespread expectations that the party could lose half a dozen Westminster seats in the summer.

Mr Morgan, now 70, has been a broadly popular and effective first minister since assuming the leadership in 2000. He took the job after attempts by Tony Blair to parachute Alun Michael into the post backfired.

Despite his high personal ratings, however, the Morgan years have seen a gradual erosion of power for Labour within Wales. In 2007, Labour was forced to form a coalition with the nationalist Plaid Cymru after an underwhelming result in that year’s assembly elections.

From a position of untrammelled supremacy within the principality, Labour has been forced to share power not only in the Cardiff assembly but also at a more local level.

Of 22 unitary authorities, the party controls just two outright, in Rhondda and Neath Port Talbot. The leaders of the councils of Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham – all of which are under no overall control – are from the Liberal Democrats.

And in a sign of Labour’s Welsh woes, the party was surpassed by the Tories in this year’s European elections.

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