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The "Dafydd El" issue

Betsan Powys | 12:39 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010

It's half term in the Assembly this week and after the frenetic, press-release-laden activity of last week's spending cuts announcement, time for a little bit of what management gurus call "horizon scanning".

One increasing topic of conversation in the tea room in recent weeks, beyond the day to day ups and downs, is the future of the Presiding Officer's role after the next Assembly election in May 2011.

Lord Elis-Thomas has been in place since the Assembly's inception in 1999. His achievements are beyond doubt - keeping a firm grip on debates in the early years, lobbying hard for the vital separation of the legislature and executive delivered in the Government of Wales Act 2006 and being an articulate, insightful, and sometimes ... what's the word ... arch commentator on the development of devolution. He has, as X Factor judges insist on putting it, made the job 'his own'.

But - and there's always a but - he has been there an awfully long time now and the question's being asked with growing urgency: should he serve a fourth term?

Now normally, journalists like to preface statements like that with words like "unprecedented". But Lord Elis-Thomas is his own precedent, if you like. The Assembly doesn't have the hundreds of years of history associated with the House of Commons. When Speaker Martin was forced from office, the history books were consulted, precedents found (rather embarrassingly for us Welsh, in a disgraced 17th Century Speaker from Denbighshire).

But the bottom line here is that there has never been an Assembly without Dafydd El, as political friends and enemies alike have grown used to calling him, in the PO's chair. Would he want a fourth term? I haven't spoken directly to him about it. In fact I get the impression that he doesn't really want any long conversations about it, thank you very much but I would say from everything I've gleaned, the answer to that question is yes. So will he get the job again?

There are strong signs the answer to that question is likely to be no.

The Tories are now openly opposed to a fourth term. Tensions are simmering under the surface at what they see as an increasingly high handed and imperial conduct. In the way that these things tend to in Cardiff Bay, matters came to a head in the chamber two weeks ago when the Presiding Officer refused to allow questions to the First Minister from Kirsty Williams relating to the Ministerial Code, which Carwyn Jones alone is responsible for policing.

There then followed an exchange on a point of order between the Presiding Officer and Tory Jonathan Morgan in which the Cardiff North AM laid out in detail the reasons why he disagreed with the PO's ruling. The First Minister, he argued, should be accountable to the Assembly with respect to the Code, as one of his functions as head of the government.

It ended with Lord Elis-Thomas growling back "I do not see that I have anything to add to what I have said". Handbags out in the chamber? Raised eyebrows in the tearoom afterwards.

Now this may sound arcane but it's highly significant. Lord Elis-Thomas represents Plaid Cymru, part of the governing coalition. Until now, there's been an acceptance across the chamber that he's so far from being "on message" in party political terms that this is completely irrelevant to his role as an impartial chair of the Assembly.

No longer. The Liberal Democrats will stand with the Tories on this one. When Lord Elis-Thomas's third term as Presiding Officer comes to an end in May 2011, they will not allow him to take the chair for a fourth. Enough is enough is the message and in a pretty open way by now.

Can he count on support from Labour and Plaid Cymru? I understand that the "Dafydd El issue" has been discussed between all four parties, at the highest level, and the consensus reported back to me is effectively - it's time for a change.

Never underestimate the Presiding Officer's political wiliness. You certainly wouldn't put your mortgage on him not sitting in that chair again after May's elections. But there are other candidates ready and willing to do the job and a growing sense that after twelve years, in a very simple way, it's someone else's turn.


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