BBC BLOGS - Betsan's Blog
« Previous | Main | Next »

Trigger un-happy?

Betsan Powys | 16:24 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A few months before he actually got the job - no, won the job hands down - Carwyn Jones came across as a man who truly wanted to be First Minister but who'd live if he didn't make it. Rather healthy if you ask me.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that his delight in getting the top job is waning but isn't alraedy abundantly clear to us all that having got it, he's also copped a whole load of the sort of pressures that go with standing out there on the deck, plotting a course through the icebergs ahead. Forgive me, I've just spent two days on a leadership course.

Which pressures am I talking about?

The Welsh higher education sector struggling; the Welsh health service, if you accept the judgement of the Nuffield Trust, struggling in comparison with England; the Welsh economy struggling - pick your links, though today's news is a little brighter than it has been for some time.

But for a moment let's concentrate on another sort of pressure, one that isn't on the front pages of the BBC news website today but one that's squeezing Carwyn Jones between a rock and a hard, hard place - the pressure that has prevented him from making a clear, concise statement telling us whether the vote held in the Assembly on the 9th of February will actually trigger the referendum or not.

It didn't sound great, all the waffling and writhing in his very first lobby briefing as FM. It can't have been the plan, so why is he having to do it?

Right: let's run through what we know.

If the trigger vote isn't held on February 9th, there are legal experts who say there is only the slimmest of on-paper chances that the referendum would be held in October. In their view, autumn's out if the process isn't kicked off in February.

Other equally eminent constitutional experts, also listened to by the politicians, say you could start the process of forming the referendum question and preparing the exact, water-tight wording of the Order before you actually squeeze the trigger. It sounds like putting the cart before the horse but with political reassurances that a Secretary of State would then be willing - and able - to move like the clappers, then an autumn referendum could still be on the cards.

Why on earth would you choose to do it that way? I really don't know.

To get a vote through that would trigger the referendum, 40 Assembly Members must vote for it.

26 Labour AMs and 14 Plaid AMs make 40 but they wouldn't all be allowed to vote. Take out the Presiding Officer and his Deputy and one or two who are likely to be absent due to long term illness. One Labour AM has already intimated that if the vote is indeed presented as a trigger vote, they might well find an urgent constituency matter cropping up on the crucial day, keeping them away from the green 'yes' voting button.

So looking at the maths Labour and Plaid need the support of other parties.

Looking at the big picture, the First Minister and his Deputy want the vote to display cross-party unity. A referendum? Yes, look at us! We all want it and most of us by far want to win it.

On to what I'm pretty sure I do know.

The Plaid group want an October referendum. It would hardly be the end of the world for Plaid if it slipped to May 2011 but Ieuan Wyn Jones knows that as far as his party's concerned, October must remain an option. No wriggle room there. There's always the argument that the sort of voters who'll bother casting a vote in a referendum are more likely to be supporters of Plaid so there are those who favour May, the Presiding Officer among them. Win win for Ieuan Wyn Jones?

The Conservatives group, now 13 in number, want an October referendum and are adamant it's just not on to hold it on the same day as the Assembly election - May 6, 2011. If there's even the merest hint that the referendum may be held on the same day, they won't vote for it. Either they get a public, or even private reassurance, that May 2011 is off the agenda or they abstain.

In this game of three dimensional chess, however, the Tories have another factor to consider - and that's if they blocked a referendum - Plaid's shining prize in this Assembly term, it's hard to see that Plaid could possibly entertain them as coalition partners in the next Assembly. Wouldn't that leave them decidedly short of options when it comes to forming an administration?

The Liberal Democrats want an October referendum and would prefer to see the date, if possible, specified when it comes to the vote on February 9th. If the date isn't there, or the private promise of a date, what do they do? Abstain, even though Labour and Plaid need their support? No. The trigger vote would be lost and with it, the chance of having the referendum in October which is what the Lib Dems want. Counter-productive, surely. The Lib Dem group won't hold things up.

Independent AM Trish Law wants an October referendum. She wants strong indications that May 6th 2011 is off the agenda before she votes yes to the trigger though.

So back to the maths. If Carwyn Jones wants the February 9th to be a trigger vote, he has the numbers. Labour, Plaid - even with inevitable abstentions/absenteeism - and Lib Dems should - should - get them over 40. No need to give Nick Bourne assurances on dates. Not ideal but the maths could be made to add up, give or take a bit of arm-twisting.

So Plaid want an October referendum, the Conservatives want an October referendum, the Lib Dems want an October referendum. What's stopping Carwyn Jones from calling February 9th a trigger vote?

Getting the wording absolutely right so that True Wales supporters don't see an opportunity to challenge it legally?

Finding the time to have the necessary discussions with opposition leaders?

Considering all the options properly and thoroughly?

Welsh Labour MPs don't want him to? The Secretary of State really doesn't want him to?
Not at all says a voice from Westminster. All Welsh Labour MPs want is for the matter to be sorted quickly, smoothly so everyone can start concentrating on the General Election. For them, a referendum is a sideshow.

So there you have it.

I know what I know. I know what I think I know. Carwyn Jones has ten days or so to tell us all what we really want to know: is the referendum process triggered on February 9th or not?


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 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.