The last day of term in the Senedd always seems to throw up curve balls, and just before AMs broke for Easter recess came the news – after a day of rumours and counter-rumours – that Mark Reckless had left UKIP to join the Conservative group.
He became the third AM (fourth if you include the temporary suspension of Neil McEvoy) to leave their party and/or party group in the space of a year (see also: Done up like a kipper?; Dic Sion Dafydd?).
Within days of the election result last May, I said:
"....the chances of UKIP remaining a seven-member group through the entire course of the Fifth Assembly are looking pretty slim....I'd be amazed if they last through to 2021 as they are. I'd expect the defections and resignations to start by the end of this year (2016)....it's a proud track record in any place where there are sizable number of UKIP members."
After Neil Hamilton usurped Nathan Gill as group leader, Mark Reckless would've been top of my list of potential defectors along with Caroline Jones (who's since pledged her loyalty).
So this was predictable, although a few weeks ago Mark Reckless said UKIP "speaks for Wales" and called for unity within UKIP. How quickly things change, eh?
It's unbelievable something so simple could turn out so complicated, but as the days have gone by it's developing into a crisis of Andrew Davies' making (more from ITV Wales' Adrian Masters).
What do we know so far?
Impact on the Senedd
- Mark Reckless will join the Conservative Assembly group as an Independent AM. My understanding is he'll be subject to the Tory whip (have to vote the same way as Tory AMs) and for all intents and purposes would be considered a Tory for Assembly business, but won't take part in any group meetings and won't have a shadow portfolio.
- With 12 members the Conservatives are the largest opposition group. Subsequently, Andrew Davies is Leader of the Opposition and party spokespeople are now shadow ministers. In practical terms this means a £1,000 salary bump for Andrew Davies, an additional ~£20,300 a year for the Conservative group (pdf - p42) and the Tories will have a bigger say in Assembly business. The opposite is the case for UKIP (£1,000 pay cut for Neil Hamilton, lose £20,300 a year, less say).
- Mark Reckless has lost his position (and £13,000 a year) as Chair of the Environment Committee – he reportedly wanted to keep it. It was said elsewhere that Plaid Cymru will have to concede a Chair to the Tories (I'm not sure. I suspect the now vacant Environment Committee chair will be given to the Tories instead, which hints at David Melding being in line to take over as he's a member of that committee).
- Mark Reckless is a deeply divisive figure within the Conservative party since his defection to UKIP in 2014 and it's clear many MPs, and the central party, aren't happy with the decision, suggestions being that all sitting Tory AMs could face de-selection.
- Conservative rules mean any member of the Conservative group needs to be a member of the party, but it's presently unclear whether Tory AMs voted to suspend their rules to allow Mark Reckless to join – Andrew Davies denies it, saying the meeting was minuted and all AMs agreed to let him join.
- There's confusion over whether this was a unanimous decision, with reports over the weekend that once it became clear the central party may not support the move, 3 AMs voted against suspending the rules.
- Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) broke ranks on Sunday to say there were "major concerns" over the move and he was now unclear of his own status – something anonymous Conservative sources described as "opportunism" and an attempt to re-run his unsuccessful 2011 leadership bid.
Why this happened and the slow disintegration of UKIP are topics for another time. I don't think it's a coincidence Mark left UKIP within weeks of his other employer, Douglas Carswell MP, for whom he moonlights as a parliamentary researcher. It's still unclear whether he'll be allowed to keep that role, but you assume he would've been given the OK.
I'm very, very surprised Tory AMs are OK with this and you've got to wonder if doing it for the sake of opposition titles (which are, in practical terms, meaningless) and a modest funding boost is worth the hassle.
I'm in no doubt Mark pines for a return to that Hogwarts for Adults laughably called a parliament in London, so I don't see him sticking in Wales for the long haul. I also wonder how long it'll be before Nathan Gill is offered/seeks something similar.
The Other Big Questions
This defection raises questions over the the Alternative Member System (AMS) used to elect regional list members, whether by-elections should be called when AMs "cross the floor" as well as recall of AMs (see also: Total Recall).
Twenty AMs are elected regionally, whereby you vote for a party not a candidate and the seats are distributed based on the strength of the party vote and how many first-past-the-post seats the parties have already won.
Parties decide which candidates are ranked #1, #2 etc. and the system's been used to ensure gender balance and/or to ensure candidates who would struggle to get elected in a constituency stand a chance of an Assembly seat....like Mark Reckless, who has no ties to Wales and for whom the rules were bent to make sure he could get on the UKIP list in the first place.
It's happened before of course – Mohammad Asghar's defection from Plaid to the Conservatives in 2009. No by-election or resignations then either.
Mark Reckless was elected using UKIP resources and UKIP finances because people in South Wales East voted UKIP. I never thought I'd say this, but I can understand UKIP's anger here and have a smidgen of sympathy for them.
There's nothing in the rules that says he can't walk away from that and keep his seat, as resigning would defeat the purpose of defecting and there are no by-elections for regional list seats (because of how incredibly expensive it would be to run a by-election across a whole region and because of how list seats are calculated).
Even in first-past-the-post seats, it's ultimately a matter of conscience whether defecting members trigger a by-election, but they don't have to – Dafydd Elis Thomas being a case in point.
Under the Wales Act 2017 the Senedd has responsibility for its electoral arrangements, including the voting system. An expert group has been established to look at that in more detail.
If Wales introduced a system like single transferable vote (STV), then you get a proportional result in a constituency and voters get to choose who to elect from each party, not the party themselves. However, it still means defecting AMs wouldn't be compelled to force a by-election.
A solution to that problem (if Wales eventually adopts STV) is altering the Senedd's Standing Orders so that if someone wants to leaves one party group to join another party group (as opposed to simply becoming an Independent, being suspended or entering a formal coalition agreement) they have to resign within 30 days and trigger a by-election, or a by-election is triggered automatically.
Or, even under the current electoral system, if AMs leave a party they could be subject to a "cooling-off period" before they can join another party/party group – perhaps 2 years - forcing them to sit as a "proper" Independent.