State of Play 3 - The Lib Dems

Here's the third instalment of our look at the state of play for each of the four main parties in Wales with @TobyMasonBBC.

The Liberal Democrats had a traumatic start to this Assembly. Although they lost just one of their six seats, two of the remaining five quickly became embroiled in a controversy about their election so arcane that even seasoned hacks struggled to add a 'gate' suffix to it.

The row lasted weeks, effectively paralysing the party for the first couple of months of the new Assembly term. When it finally ended, they kept their North Wales representative Aled Roberts, but had to switch John Dixon for Eluned Parrott.

Since then, though, they've given every impression of being a relatively united bunch - which is not always necessarily easier within a smaller group, as the Lib Dems have sometimes demonstrated in years gone by.

Perhaps it's a case of unity in adversity to some extent too - previous Lib Dem groups had the luxury of being in opposition at Westminster up until the May 2010 coalition deal. Since then, Kirsty Williams has had to batten down the hatches and try and ride out the wave of unpopularity that's engulfed her party across the UK. The Assembly elections in 2011 came at just about the worst possible time - long enough for the party's conspicuous promises on issues such as tuition fees to be broken, but too short to make any coherent case that the pain was paying off in the national interest.

The party's share of the vote in the constituency seats dropped from 14.8 per cent in 2007 to 10.6 per cent in 2011 and they fared even worse on the regional vote, falling from 11.7 per cent to a paltry 8 per cent.

If Ms Williams and her colleagues had hoped that voters would appreciate the nuances of the party's federal structure in a devolved election, then they were largely disappointed. But the Welsh Lib Dems certainly got the message, and thus, since the election, the policy of differentiation has been accelerated. If the Welsh party disagrees with a coalition policy or proposal, then they're willing, even keen to shout about it in public, and take the charges of hypocrisy from their opponents on the chin.

Should they show a little more loyalty to their Westminster colleagues in the eye of the storm? Perhaps, but it's equally hard to imagine any other party in the Lib Dems position looking at polls and election results - and doing anything very different.

Unlike the Welsh Conservatives, perhaps due to the very different structure of the two parties, there seems to be a far greater acceptance of this approach by their party in Westminster. On a recent visit, Nick Clegg was asked during an interview about the Welsh Lib Dems open opposition to his government's proposals for regional pay. He smiled and replied along the lines of "Kirsty never leaves me in any doubt about where she and her colleagues here stand". Subtext: this isn't exactly unhelpful for me either.

It looks increasingly as if Welsh Labour intend to go it alone in government for the duration of this Assembly term. For the Lib Dems, the political dynamic between now and the next Assembly elections in 2016 will therefore largely be governed by the fortunes of the party at a UK level, rather than the ability to make any sort of game-changing move in Wales.

The big question, assuming the coalition runs its course to 2015, is whether the voters will give their verdict on the Liberal Democrats in that General Election and then be prepared to cast their votes the Assembly election in 2016 with more of an open mind than they did five years earlier. From a selfish point of view, the Assembly group will be fervently hoping that the voters take their pound of flesh (if the opinion polls continue as they are) at the General Election and then are able to approach them on their own merits a year later. A vain hope? Perhaps.

If they do, then the Welsh party will surely consider the policy of distancing themselves in certain key areas from their colleagues' decisions at Westminster to have been a success. Again - a big if.

Another factor here - for both elections - will be how much the Lib Dem activist base will have held up after the heavy losses earlier this year in the local elections. Many of those who lost their seats will feel that the distancing policy didn't do a great deal to help them when it came to crosses on ballot papers. The then Lib Dem leader of Cardiff Council Rodney Berman told me a couple of weeks before those elections that he believed "the worst was over" and that the party was getting a fair hearing from voters. Labour won a victory there the scale of which surprised even them.

In the last two posts, I've raised some questions about the political positioning of the other two opposition parties. The smaller size of the Lib Dem group means they're under less pressure to appear as a government-in-waiting.

Last autumn, Kirsty Williams focused on getting a Budget deal with Labour where she extracted a £20m funding pledge for one of the party's longstanding promises, a Pupil Premium, or extra funding paid to schools based on the number of deprived children at each one. In return, she delivered the votes Labour needed to get their Budget through.

It will be interesting to see whether this arrangement is repeated in the autumn, and if so, on what terms. If it does transpire, then it starts to look like a de facto confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Lib Dems. The party insisted that it was a one-off at the end of last year, but again, it's a useful and very public means of differentiating between the Welsh and UK parties.

However, if this gives the impression that the party is itching to form a coalition with Labour, it's worth understanding the key role Ms Williams played in bringing about the vote of confidence in the Labour health minister Lesley Griffiths. On the day the story broke, following the minister's urgent statement to the chamber, every one of the opposition parties were actively considering their next move - with all three debating internally, but separately, how and whether to push for a full blown confidence vote.

It was the Lib Dem leader who brought together her two counterparts in the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru to hammer out a joint statement and agree on the format of the vote - no mean feat given the political distance between Andrew RT Davies and Leanne Wood. An embryonic rainbow alliance? I very much doubt it. But it was proof that co-operation between the three parties could happen if the circumstances were right.

Does supporting Labour's Budget plans and leading the charge against one of its senior ministers perhaps fall into the category of political expediency - or even hypocrisy? That's for others to judge - but the bigger picture for the five Lib Dem AMs is whether their five year push to distance themselves from some of the unpopular decisions of the UK coalition is enough to prevent their vote falling even further in 2016.