Assembly Members are split over how to deal with the new Brexit party AMs.
Some AMs are trying to find ways of stopping the four who defected to Nigel Farage’s party from forming a group in the Senedd and so accessing the rights, privileges and funding which go to other parties.
Meanwhile the Llywydd or Presiding Officer is also being criticised for delaying a decision with a warning that she could face a confidence vote if she allows an attempt to change the rules.
A Brexit party spokesperson says it’s confident it’s met all the requirements and will be recognised as a group in the Assembly while any attempts by other parties to block it could instead boost its support.
Since the announcement that the Brexit Party had applied to be recognised as a group, there have been intense behind-the-scenes conversations about changing the Assembly’s rules although that’s been called ‘hypocritical’ while others are furious about an attempt to do that mid-way through a session.
The four AMs, who are all former UKIP members, announced on Wednesday that they had joined the Brexit Party at an event on the Senedd steps attended by Nigel Farage. They submitted a formal request to be recognised as a group within the Assembly.
Such recognition would lead to extra payments and roles within the Assembly such as dedicated questions to the First Minister and committee positions.
However that’s led to anger from political opponents and from those who say any group would have no mandate because none of its members had been elected as Brexit party representatives.
No decision has yet been made. The Llwydd, Elin Jones, is said to be determined to observe ‘due diligence.’
She’s received the application and has written to each of the four members to clarify their exact status, confirmation that they’ve left any previous parties, confirmation that they belong to the same party and confirmation that it is registered with the Electoral Commission.
Her spokesperson says that it’s unlikely there’ll be a decision before early next week.
At the same time political opponents are trying to take matters into their own hands.
I understand that separate efforts are being made by Labour and Plaid Cymru members to change the Assembly’s rules which are known as ‘standing orders.’
I’m told one change could involve adding a clause that a group could not be recognised as a group unless at least some of its members had been elected in a Welsh election.
Any change to standing orders requires a ‘super-majority’ of two-thirds of Assembly members, so that all of the Welsh Government-supporting AMs (including its two non-Labour members) and Plaid Cymru AMs would have to vote together.
I understand that the Conservatives will refuse to block any attempts. The remaining two UKIP members – Gareth Bennett and Neil Hamilton – are said to differ with Bennett against and Hamilton likely to support blocking attempts.
A senior Conservative told me that while it may be politically inconvenient to them and that they would rather there were no Brexit party group, the rules are clear and ‘we should play by the rules.’
Others have sympathy with the argument that the rules should change but not in the middle of an Assembly session. Plaid’s possible attempt, they say, is just ‘grubby politics.’
What’s more they point out that in Westminster, Plaid Cymru MPs are happy to recognise and work alongside Change UK MPs who also switched to a new party grouping without an election.
That’s different though, a Labour AM told me. Those MPs had a personal mandate as well as a party mandate by being elected by a constituency. The Brexit party AMs were all selected as UKIP list members.
That Labour AM is wary of changing the rules though. ‘We don’t want to make them martyrs.’
Another Labour AM is clear that the rules have to be changed. Alun Davies has written a blog post saying that the four AMs have ‘no legitimacy’ and that the Assembly’s standing orders and being ‘systematically abused.’ You can read the full post here.
When I spoke to him he stood by those remarks and thinks the numbers would be there to support a change in the rules.
But he says the thinking is developing in the many conversations taking place behind the scenes. For instance he says he’d be willing not to push for a vote next week if the Llywydd were prepared to press pause on the process, promise not to recognise the group, consider Labour and Plaid objections and come back with a decision after recess.
The important thing, he told me, was that ‘we don’t want our democracy undermined and we don’t want charlatans and chances who are more interested in public money than public service.’
Then there’s that criticism of the Llywydd and the delay which is said by some Conservatives to be a sign of political influence in her decision-making.
One told me ‘this is the most politicised Commission (the body which runs the Assembly) ever. The exchange of letters is all about buying time. The Commission is close compromising themselves and the Presiding office is in danger of compromising herself.’
They warn of a possible no-confidence vote if she delays further to allow attempts to change the standing orders. It wouldn’t pass, but the source said it would be hugely symbolic and hugely damaging.
Sources within the Assembly Commission think the criticism is unfair, saying that as soon as it even looked possible that the Brexit Party would be applying to become a group, Elin Jones told officials that it would be a long process because she would have to take evidence in writing.