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Grand dilemmas

Betsan Powys | 17:32 UK time, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Heading off to Swansea soon to the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference.

Things to look out for:

Disdain for Labour's love-bombing (Peter Black AM has had enough of it, or should that be can't get enough of it?)
Use of the word "fair"
Tight lips. Liberal Democrats have been told to keep stumm about plans for next Tuesday's vote on the referendum.

Which vote on which referendum? Your confusion is not without reason. Read this extract from Conservative Iain Dale's Diary the other day:

"I hear Labour whips are very worried about losing Tuesday's vote on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote system. With a majority of more than 60, they ought to win the vote comfortably, but doubts are being expressed about how a significant number of Labour MPs will vote. Very few are AV enthusiasts and there are plenty who reject any hint of any kind of electoral reform. Others, especially those who are standing down, may well just decide not to bother turning up.

In addition, the LibDems have published their own amendment to the motion. They hate AV. They don't regard it as in any way proportional. It is therefore likely they will abstain, but if their amendment is treated with contempt, they could join the Tories in the no lobby. The Tories are on a three line whip, with dire warnings being issued to those who think they might have an evening off".

Ring any bells? Substitute 'AV ' for devolution, substitute 'evening off' for 'day off' (child friendly hours in the Bay remember) and there you have a dilemma-laden Tuesday for the Lib Dems.

How do you explain to the voters why you've abstained, or voted no in two votes on two issues that you as a party support wholeheartedly - a change to the voting system and beefing up the powers of the Welsh Assembly? How long do you get with voters to explain the reasons why you wanted to amend both motions, even if your reasons in both cases are perfectly legitimate?

The danger for the Welsh Lib Dems is obvious. They failed to go into coalition with Labour. Why? Because not enough of those with a vote on the night thought the deal on offer was good enough. The vote was tied. Lib Dem rules led to a triple-lock system and a good-bye wave to a term in coalition government. By the time supporters of the deal had picked the lock, it was too late. The Lib Dems no longer looked like a safe partnership bet.

How did it look from outside that room in Llandrindod Wells? It looked as though the Lib Dems had choked. When they got a chance to put policies into action, they choked.

Hence the dilemma for Kirsty Williams.

If the Lib Dem group don't get a reassurance from Labour and Plaid that the referendum will not be on the day of next year's Assembly election, they have two choices: they can stick with the Conservatives, abstain and stand accusedm again, of choking and blocking the one option they do support - an Autumn referendum.

Or they can be seen not to do stand in the way of a referendum for now, vote yes on Tuesday and fight their battles on date later in the process. Labour and Plaid praise their maturity, while sniggering into their sleeves that they knew the LIb Dems hadn't the stomach to abstain. Meanwhile the Conservatives and Nick Bourne who are adamant that the Lib Dems are with them on this all the way will call them flaky.

There is another option of course. It's possible that Kirsty Williams might just rein in her more strident side, manage to talk tough but fair and persuade the coalition government, that's getting every-so-slightly more nervous that she just might mean it, to give enough ground to deliver a united front from all four parties on Tuesday.

If there are dark corners in the the Grand Theatre in Swansea, I'm guessing that's the advice the party's leading lady just might be getting.

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