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Pickets and poles

Betsan Powys | 11:59 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

"It's just like old times" said Nick Bourne this morning.

It turns out he wasn't making a political point about strikes and picket lines. What he meant, I think, was that he was back in a room in the red brick building of Ty Hywel where briefings - pre-Senedd - used to happen. He was there and we were there because the Senedd was closed to business.

"It's business as usual for us!" added Mr Bourne pointedly.

The Conservative group met as usual today. The leader came in between 7 and 7.30am. The only unusual aspect of his morning was that he's stopped on his way to have his photograph taken with the picketers. They "quite understood" that he had work to get on with and he quite understood that they had a right to strike.

There was only one Liberal Democrat AM in evidence but the others, we were told, would have been there had there been First Minister's Questions and plenary to attend. They were working in their constituencies.

But why were Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs not there, asked Mr Bourne, Alun Cairns by his side?

Why had they withdrawn government business for the day?

Wasn't this a snub to a Labour UK government? The "irony" that there were Labour AMs standing outside with the picketers hadn't been lost on him, he said.

The upshot of the briefing? That employers coming out in favour of employees was "farcical".

Alun Cairns was in provocative mood. The lobby's collective ears pricked up.

First Minister's Questions had been suspended for the first time ever because Labour and Plaid AMs had made it clear they wouldn't cross the picket line to attend. If they considered themselves to be refusing to work in sympathy with PCS members and Assembly employees and if they were alos out on strike, then that, in his eyes, was tantamount to secondary picketing - "which is ilegal" he added, just in case the point was lost on his audience.

"If" indeed. Nice try.

So where are we?

All four parties respect the right of PCS members to strike.

All four parties want the talking and negotiating to continue.

All four parties want two sides, who seem poles apart, to thrash it out.

But two sides want to know if the other two sides are once again going to suspend government business if PCS members feel it necessary to call another strike next Tuesday?

Jeff Cuthbert, Helen Mary Jones and chair of the all party PCS group Leanne Wood were clear this morning that calling off government business had happened "in exceptional circumstances". They said too that that they never have and never will cross a picket line. No matter that they're not crossing it to do the job of those on it - they would simply not cross that line, literally or metaphorically.

So might the Assembly have to shut up shop again?

Yesterday the First Minister met the UK High Commissioner to South Africa, not in his office in Ty Hywel, but over coffee in the Hilton Hotel in central Cardiff.

A request was made that he gave us an interview while he was there, one where we could ask what happens if and when there is another strike; one where he, on behalf of the government partners, could spell out exactly what the plan was should the picket line feel the need to meet again. He could spell out the courage of WAG's convictions on this one.

Initially, the answer was 'fine, fine'.

Later it turned into something else. 'Pictures only. No words'.

I'm not sure what that tells me. Nick Bourne might suggest it speaks volumes.

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