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Betsan Powys | 12:22 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

sudoku1.jpgI don't know if Carwyn Jones is any good at Sudoku but the negotiations around whether the Assembly vote on February 9th is the formal trigger for a referendum on further powers are looking more and more like one of those number puzzles that is MODERATE at the very least, if not HARD.

The solution is the easy bit. We know that already - the 40 or more votes by AMs needed to pass the trigger resolution. Getting to that 40+ is the difficult bit. Why, you ask, when all four parties are in favour of a referendum before the next Assembly elections in May 2011? Well the key to the current difficulty lies in one word in that question - "before". That is "before" the elections on May 5, 2011, not on election day itself, as I've blogged before. (5th. 5th. Keep typing 6th when I mean 5th.)

Whichever way you do the number puzzle you can't, as things stand, get to 40 with just Labour and Plaid AMs. Two Labour AMs are on long-term sick leave. Standing Orders prevent the Plaid Llywydd and Labour Dirprwy Lywydd from voting in a trigger resolution. This leaves 36 votes - but only assuming every other government AM is present, correct and votes in favour. A bit of an assumption I'd say.

So where are we now? Well the voices that were pessimistic about February 9th being a trigger resolution are now stating confidently - a trigger it will be. Yes, I've seen the reports of potentially terminal tensions within the coalition. They feel overstated to me. The two are pulling in the same direction on this but let's be clear: it is far from a done deal. The votes of the opposition parties are still needed.

The Conservatives have stated their position firmly and unequivocally. They want a public or private assurance, a letter in Nick Bourne's back pocket as he put it yesterday, which contains a promise that the Assembly Government won't hold the referendum on May 5th next year. Once that's in the bag, the Tories will vote en bloc for the trigger. But both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are deeply reluctant to do this. No politician wants to tie his own hands if they can possibly avoid it. It also makes a mockery of the "keeping all options open" mantra that both Carwyn Jones and Ieuan Wyn Jones have adopted.

Without the assurance on the date will the Tories lend their votes to a trigger motion? It's a huge call, one of the biggest for Mr Bourne as Conservative leader.

Don't underestimate the lingering legacy of the 1997 No campaign. The story of the last decade has been a slow - and sometimes painful - transformation of the party's image as ardent anti-devolutionist to pragmatic pro-devolutionists. "Welshing-up" hasn't been without its bust-ups within the party but the job is done. Why shatter that with a vote or even an abstention that would allow their opponents to portray them as wanting to hold Wales back ... again? You can hear it now: those Tories want you to think they've changed but guess what, when it comes to it they haven't.

At the same time,don't underestimate the deep unease the Tories feel about fighting a referendum campaign on further powers in tandem with an Assembly election campaign. As one despairing Tory AM said in the tearoom this week, how can I tell my local activists to go out and knock lumps out of Labour one day when I'm smiling with them on a platform for further powers the next?

The Liberal Democrats share this unease. They too want the same firm assurances on the date but there's just a sense that it's not quite the deal breaker that it is for the Tories.

The tactic being adopted by the Assembly Government in relation to the opposition parties on this appears to be one of divide and rule. The two opposition leaders have been seen separately by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to canvass their views. Both, I gather, delivered similar messages - rule out May 5, 2011 and all will be well.

Neither got that assurance.

The question is this: if and when it comes to the crunch will the two stand together? They are in a kind of prisoner's dilemma where as long as they're united they have (in theory at least) the power to get what they want but if one side changes its view the other is left exposed.

The Liberal Democrats have seen another backstop. The Order which will be drawn up as a result of the trigger and enables the referendum to take place will have to have a date written into it.

It also needs the approval of 40 AMs, just like the trigger. So if the Order has May 5th on it the opposition could withhold their votes at that point. But that would be another huge call to make and without the political cover provided by a prior assurance from Carwyn Jones that May is off the agenda, it simply shunts the prisoner's dilemma 120 days down the track.

If the Liberal Democrats decide they'll go ahead and vote for the trigger without any assurance on dates, then it would be possible to get to 40 but not by much. And - dear readers who've stuck with this so far - that is why a plan is afoot to try and suspend Standing Orders in order to allow the Presiding Officer and his Deputy to vote on the trigger resolution, boosting the government vote by two. Not enough to get to 40 without the Lib Dems but a useful insurance policy against any government votes going awry on February 9th.

The meeting rooms of Cardiff Bay are busy this week. Perhaps the real name of the game isn't Sudoku at all but brinkmanship. The motion has to be published by February 2nd, next Tuesday.

A lot of people have a lot riding on what's in it.


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