Time to switch back on

The straightforward, yet key question in any successful novelist's mind, or so I heard a renowned critic explain over the summer, should be "What comes next?" I've just spent much of that summer reading the work of those who listened to him and the novels of those who should have ... but it's time to switch back on and apply his key question to Welsh politics.

What comes next?

Let's start with the four party leaders and broaden the territory over the next few days.

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Image caption Kirsty Williams

Kirsty Williams, you imagine, must have asked the very same question over and again during much of her time as leader of the Welsh Lib Dems. You wouldn't blame her if she'd thrown in an expletive or two along the way.

Take the deal Nick Clegg struck with David Cameron in Westminster, one the Welsh party leader would never have contemplated. It left her condemned to showing her discontent by scowling in photo-shoots with Cheryl Gillan and strategically, well, stuffed ahead of the Assembly elections.

Next? A key member of the already small Lib Dem group in Cardiff Bay goes out for a drink too many and thumps a paramedic. Not much a leader can do but ensure Mick Bates co-operates with the police and throw everything at keeping his seat for the party.

His seat is lost but the proportional element softens the blow come May. Support tumbles but a group of six, somehow, only shrinks to five. Phew? Within days what came next were questions about the legitimacy of two of the victorious candidates. There was no question that the party machinery had failed somewhere.

Six eventually became not-quite-the-same five. The leader looked done-in.

There is a sense, at least, that all of this has happened to Kirsty Williams. Now, somehow, the Lib Dem leader has to change the grammar.

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Image caption Ieuan Wyn Jones

The appointed big thinkers of Plaid Cymru have spent the summer precisely pondering what comes next - what comes next for a party that shared power with Labour, saw the key tenets of their agenda delivered and others adopted by the other three parties as official policy, then saw ballot papers that not just booted them out of government but put them in third place? Put bluntly, did voters not like what they heard or did the party fail to ensure they heard it right? Here and here are a couple of stabs at answering these questions.

There's another key consideration for the small band of big thinkers. They, you imagine, are having to ask what comes next no matter who comes next as party leader. Ieuan Wyn Jones has one last term in office before the race to succeed him truly begins, a race you'll rarely hear discussed without the mention of a man who doesn't hold an Assembly seat and unless he does, won't be in the running: former MP Adam Price. I've heard his name mentioned wistfully, most strikingly by a man in a cafe in Llanelli market some months ago. He always voted Plaid "when it was Adam Price's party" he said. Now he wasn't so sure.

There are also those who mention it with frustration and irritation. Who on earth is going to want to take over as leader when the obvious contender/real thing/one Labour would really be scared of isn't yet ready to go for it? How Plaid deal with that one will be worth watching.

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Image caption Andrew RT Davies

Andrew R T Davies did go for it and won the leadership of the Welsh Conservatives. It was RT for the par-ty after all, though "young Mr Ramsay" as Mr Davies referred to his challenger gave him more of a run for his money than most of us had anticipated early on. What does that tell us about what might come next for Welsh Tories?

Take the broad brush analysis first - that Mr Davies would shift the party to the right and on his way, have a typically robust thing or two to say about devolving any more power to Cardiff Bay, while Nick Ramsay would seek to broaden the party's appeal and deliver on his belief that more devolution is the right way to go. I don't believe much of that analysis held up to the reality of their campaigning but it never quite went away either.

Then consider the result: a pretty close run thing but with Andrew RT Davies coming out on top. You may assume he'll have his work cut out bringing with him two strands of supporters with what seem like very different expectations. On the other hand you may spot the opportunity a broad church - a broader church, at least, than has existed and certainly been depicted in the past - gives the Assembly's newest leader. So what comes next Mr Davies?

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Image caption Carwyn Jones

And so to Labour. Before the summer recess they were shrugging off accusations that they had failed to hit the ground running, that having done what Labour does best in Wales - win power - they were now busily proving that they weren't too sure what to do with it - in other words, what came next. Why all these calls for a programme of (for?) government, they asked?

We're in charge - albeit "without any triumphalism and with no trace of any political tribalism" and we've already got one. What did you think our election manifesto was other than a programme of government?

They do know, however, that the language and the reality of "performance gaps" in economic performance, in the health service, in education and elsewhere has hardened into more than unfathomable statistics and stark headlines. Carwyn Jones knew that much before the 'hit the road' this summer.

People know about them, care about then, worry about them. The same goes for ministers who may not in public accept those gaps as fair or as revealing very much about what is already changing 'since the figures were published'. They will know that what must come next for this Labour government are better figures, smaller gaps.

If the pressure is on them to "deliver" with those "tools" they've now got, it won't have surprised you that they, in turn, have turned up the pressure on those who do much of the delivering on their behalf: local government.

More on what comes next for them soon.