The National Assembly for Wales re-convened today after last Thursday’s election. First item on the agenda was the election of a new Presiding Officer (PO: equivalent of the Speaker in the Commons) and deputy. After much speculation on alternative candidates, the PO election turned into a straight fight between long-time Plaid Cymru members Elin Jones and Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, a former holder of the post. Jones won the secret ballot narrowly; her deputy will be the veteran Labour AM Ann Jones, who beat her party colleague John Griffiths by a single vote.
That, we thought, was the drama over for one afternoon. The election of the First Minister was the next item of business, and Carwyn Jones’ re-election appeared to be a formality. But then rumours started circulating that it might not be quite so straightforward. And so it transpired. Jones was nominated by Labour; but also Plaid Cymru nominated their leader Leanne Wood. It appeared at first that Wood was simply making a futile gesture, as did Ruth Davidson in standing for First Minister in the Scottish Parliament when Nicola Sturgeon was confirmed in the role in late-2014.
But then, as the roll-call of AMs proceeded in alphabetical order, and the votes were taken, it became clear that Wood was winning the support of all Conservative and UKIP members, as well as her own Plaid Cymru AMs. The pivotal vote, the penultimate one taken, was that of Kirsty Williams, sole-surviving Lib-Dem in the Assembly. She refused to support Wood; her vote for Jones means that the Assembly was tied at 29 votes apiece.
What happens now? For the moment Wales has no First Minister and government in place. The vote will be held again, probably next Tuesday. Plaid insist that they have done no deal with the Conservatives and UKIP; that they have simply nominated Wood and it is up to other parties to decide how to vote. If elected, Wood would lead a single-party Plaid minority government. But it is difficult to believe that such an arrangement would really be sustainable for a five-year Assembly term. Williams defended her vote by insisting that she would not support a ‘ragtag coalition’, while Labour have been quick to pile in on Plaid Cymru for ‘jumping into bed with the Tories and UKIP’.
The likelihood must be that, having delivered a shot across Labour’s bows, at least one of the opposition parties will back down and allow Jones to win when the vote is re-staged next time. If the stalemate continues, though, and no First Minister can be agreed within 28 days of the election, then the Assembly is dissolved and we have another election. It’s unlikely that any of the parties really wish to put themselves through that, though – and even less likely that the voters would take anything other than a very dim view.