Wednesday, 26 December 2007

2007 review: you know, the sort of stuff that fills up papers at this time of the year

For some, there was an historic inevitability about it. Yet there were rumours of rows behind the scenes, of personality clashes, of long-running battles fuelled by naked ambitions.

But the Spice Girls put it all behind them to reform for the money, sorry their greatest hits tour.

Elsewhere, power changed hands as Tony Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown.

The year began with an unpopular Prime Minister behind in the polls, his party facing a police investigation over the way it raised funded. The year ends.....well, you can fill in your own punchline.

Gordon Brown entered Number 10 promising to restore trust in politics. Fewer than six months later, he had to admit that donations to Labour had not been lawfully declared. As I write, one candidate in Labour's deputy leadership contest is still trying to find out how an "administrative error" left him unable to declare donations properly.

Mr Brown won praise for his handing of a terror threat, of floods and of foot and mouth disease. He tried hard to reverse his image as a control freak by appointing a "government of all the talents" (GOATS), but his honeymoon ran out when he dithered over the election that never was.

Things got worse. The personal details of almost all Britain's families with children went missing (they still are). It emerged that thousands of illegal immigrants had been cleared to work in security jobs - including one whose job involved guarding the Prime Minister's car.

As these tales of woe emerged, one Labour MP - one of those who tried to force the last leader out a year after he won a mandate for a full third term - accused me of cynicism. The stories of dodgy donations and other cock-ups would be enough to test the idealism of Ulrika Jonsson's latest fiance.

Tony Blair's farewell tour may have dragged on a bit, but he was always newsworthy. The day he announced his departure and the day he went were among the most memorable of my 19 years reporting Parliament.

Dramatic political events happened outside the Westminster village. I still find it hard to believe that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness work together in government, as they do in Belfast. The SNP's Alex Salmond is First Minister of Scotland; Plaid Cymru share power in Wales.

Some of the trivial stories were, as ever, the most fun. Peter Hain's Aga saga gave me a favourite quote: "At first I was a bit sceptical about the Aga. I thought it was a great big lump. But now I actually think it's fantastic. We found food cooked on the electric cooker tasted very second class."

Mr Hain failed to win Labour's deputy leadership contest but found time to rule out a Labour-Plaid coalition and to complain loudly when the BBC later suggested a deal could happen. Having a posh cooker must help when you have so many words to eat.

The Aga "story" was good for trade. This blog's predecessor, the original-but-now-dormant BBC Wales politics blog, was quoted in The Times, the Evening Standard and the Western Mail. There's honour among bloggers as well as among thieves.

We must not forget Lord Glentoran's role in cheering us all up. The newly-appointed Conservative spokesman on Welsh affairs told us: "As far as the politics of Wales is concerned"as of 48 hours ago I knew absolutely nothing. I now know nothing, plus a bit.

"I know nothing about the politics but I know quite a lot about the geography, having climbed most of the mountains."

Sir Menzies Campbell may have had better years but the former Lib Dem leader was a good sport when a Welsh hack turned up in his party conference hotel to ask him incisive, penetrating questions about the contents of that week's Hello! magazine, featuring Lembit Opik.

Two particularly enjoyable reports featured the unveiling of Lloyd George's statue in Parliament Square and a visit to Gordon Brown's tailor. Yes, Timothy Everest really did say "suits you, sir" (with a little prompting).

The year is ending with a personal milestone: my first child benefit form. Apparently, all I need to do is to send off the form, with our daughter's birth certificate and my bank details, to HMRC in Tyne and Wear.

What could possibly go wrong? Happy New Year.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

'Tis the season to be jolly.....

Well, it's only once a year. I was snapped during the Wimbledon Common Time Trial Christmas 5k on December 22. Parenthood seems to have slowed me down. Funny that, I'm sure Paula Radcliffe said she ran faster after her daughter arrived.......
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Equally cursed and blessed

A rather relieved Nick Clegg defied the laws of political gravity this afternoon to survive the curse of Opik.

The new Lib Dem leader held off the challenge of Chris Huhne to win by 511 votes despite having won the support of the former Welsh party leader Lembit Opik.

The Montgomeryshire MP had previously backed Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes only to see their ambitions crumble rather soon afterwards.

Clegg's acceptance speech was straight from the Blair/Cameron model - lots of talk about the "new" (I've yet to find a politician who extolls the "old"). He's promised to get outside Westminster one day a week and listen to families who have nothing to do with politics.

After a cautious campaign, there's no clear sign of the direction in which he'll try to lead the Lib Dems, although he did make some potentially interesting comments about putting patients and parents in charge of public services.

Of course by the time he gets a chance of power he may be behind bars if he carries out threat to break the law on ID cards.

No word yet of how he plans to use the talents of Eleanor Burnham. Transport or Homeland Security might be inspired briefs.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Reasons to be cheerful

Back at the keyboard today after 10 days away from the office. What did I miss? 833 e-mails (not counting the ones filtered by the spam filter), a couple of stories about Peter Hain's deputy leadership campaign losing track of donations (easily done), a day out at the Welsh Grand Committee, Sian Lloyd got engaged (again), and another slight glitch in Eleanor Burnham's otherwise upwards trajectory towards the Liberal Democrat leadership.

And in what surely will be described as a snub/slap in the face to Wales, Rhydian lost the X-Factor final and Gethin was voted out of Strictly Come Dancing.

There's better news for former steelworkers at ASW, who have forced the Government into a substantial U-turn to compensate them for their lost pensions.

Brian Silver worked at ASW for 32 years and had expected to retire on a pension of £12,000 a year. Under the existing Financial Assistance Scheme, he says he would have received around £1,500. Today's announcement will give him 90 per cent of that £12,000 a year (£10,800) - leaving him almost £9,000 a year better off.

Small wonder he used an appearance on Wales Today this lunchtime to ask Mrs Silver not to go shopping before he gets home.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Life, crazy eights and the shock of the new

Some time ago, Peter Black challenged me to the Crazy Eight test. Sadly, the twin perils of having both a full-time job and a life delayed my response.

This blog is usually about other people, but I'll make an exception here to meet Peter's challenge. Some of the answers were supplied by Mrs C.

8 things I am passionate about:

Fair play

8 things I want to do before I die:

Suffer fools gladly
Outlive the DFS sale
Find something I'm good at
Get out of TV before HD comes in
Run one more marathon
Finish the novel
Start the novel
Be a good father

8 things I say often:

Have you seen my wallet/keys/ticket?
Is the washing machine free?
Another Barnett formula story? Marvellous!
Where's the remote?
Large latte to take away, please
Is it 6.30am already?
Anyone ring?/any post?
Any score?

8 songs I could listen to over and over and do:

Can't Help Falling in Love - Elvis Presley
Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now - The Smiths
Sit Down - James
I Saw Her Standing There - The Beatles
Imagine - John Lennon
Can't Stand Losing You - The Police
England 2 Colombia 0 - Kirsty MacColl
Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division

8 books I've read recently or am still reading:

Shame - Jasvinder Sanghera
It's Not About the Bike - Lance Armstrong
The Blair Years - Alastair Campbell
The Ghost - Robert Harris
A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio
Complete Baby and Child Care - Miriam Stoppard
Forgotten Soldiers - Stephen Walker
Collected Poems - Roger McGough

8 things that attract me to my best friends:


As you may have guessed from some of the above, life is about to change quite dramatically.

All being well, I'll be spending the next couple of weeks getting to know our new daughter, working on my nappy-changing technique and ignoring e-mails.

I hope to rush back in time for the excitement of the Lib Dem leadership election.

As they say at the end of the news, bye for now.

Question Time

Harriet Harman's predicted tough question time proved to be something of an anti-climax.

Her Tory shadow Theresa May tried to score a few party political points without firing a silver bullet. Ms Harman took the opportunity to repeat her defence.

Questions remain about Labour's use of secret donors and Nick Robinson has listed most of them here. Others may yet be asked by the police.

I do like Jon Mendelsohn's euphemistic job title. Labour's chief fund-raiser is known as "director of general election resources".

Sanitised job titles are now de rigeur in 21st century politics, where lobbyists paid to put forward their client's point of view refer to themselves as "public affairs consultants".

But if job titles accurately reflected roles then we would probably be denied the delights of
Silver Stick in Waiting (if you really need to know, look here) and Steward and Page of the Backstairs, a role held by the late "Backstairs Billy" Tallon.

Perhaps the new constitutional settlement being drawn up by Gordon Brown's Government could come up with some suitably modern titles for these roles.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Cable Guy

You know you're in trouble in politics when the Liberal Democrats start laughing at you.

The Lib Dems have provided much amusement for the main UK parties over the years, particularly during leadership elections.

Today, the tables turned and it was Gordon Brown's turn to become the butt of a Lib Dem joke.

Today, the party's acting leader, delivered the best line during Prime Minister's Question Time: "The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean."

Vince Cable may look like Ming Campbell's older brother but he's generally seen to have played a blinder as acting leader, highlighting Northern Rock before others spotted the problems.

He'll be gone in two weeks, replaced by Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne. Mr Cable's a keen ballroom dancing fan - I wonder if he's done enough these last few weeks to get a slot on the next Strictly Come Dancing?

Bah, humbug

They're putting the Christmas decorations up today in 4 Millbank, Westminster home of the BBC.

It's November 28.

I can just about cope with Christmas cards in the shops in August, but isn't this a little prematurely festive?

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Flag waving

Wrexham Labour MP Ian Lucas shows off his new design for the Union flag. What do you think?
He said: "This is not just a dry constitutional issue – indeed, I am aware that the politics of flags can stir some strong emotions. I am also keenly aware that there is a school of thought in Wales which means people do not feel the Union Flag represents them.

“I hope my proposal will mean that those people feel that their concerns are being listened to, that the new constitutional arrangements in the UK are marked – and most of all, that there is a wide-ranging debate on the Union Flag and what it means in Wales and the UK."

Mr Lucas raised the issue in a special debate in the Commons last night - the Government has promised to consider his views but don't hold your breath.....

Friday, 23 November 2007

Groundhog Day

The Liberal Democrats are getting terribly excited about the discovery that the Welsh Assembly Government has the power to reshape councils in Wales.

The Assembly Government got terribly excited too when the idea that the power might be transferred from Westminster was first reported more than a year ago.

Indeed, WAG got so excited they first denied they had asked for the power - only to back down when a letter from a Minister (to Welsh Secretary Peter Hain) asking for the power was revealed.

There is of course a huge difference between acquiring a power and using it - a point we reported at the time. (I'm still waiting for WAG to say sorry, mind).

I didn't realise it was a total secret - in fact Peter Black's blog from October 2006 drew attention to the announcement at the time.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

The hardest word

Westminster is a slightly calmer place today - not even an Alistair Darling emergency statement to keep us busy.

On Thursday, as Commons leader Harriet Harman sets out future business, MPs can seize precious parliamentary time to raise the issues that matter most to their constituents.

Poverty, climate change, world peace, missing child benefit records? MPs can also use it to score a few party political points. Conwy Labour MP Betty Williams raised the misuse by Plaid Cymru MPs of the communications allowance.

Ms Harman told her: "The committee on standards and privileges takes abuse of the communications allowance very seriously and rightly so as it brings our honest use of the communication allowance and the reputation of the House into disrepute."

Plaid aren't the only ones to fall foul of the new allowance - Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has also had to write a cheque after using the allowance to publish leaflets viewed by some as propaganda.

Labour's desire to score points against their coalition partners is understandable in several ways. On April 26, Plaid Cymru's Caernarfon MP Hywel Williams wrote to Labour candidate Martin Eaglestone threatening him with legal action if he didn't retract, and apologise for, a suggestion the MPs had misused public funds.

Mr Williams gave a deadline of May 1. Mr Eaglestone didn't retract or apologise. He's still waiting for the Plaid legal squad to knock on his door.

Labour, too, will be waiting a long time for the apology demanded by Plaid for misuse of the funds.

Plaid parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd told BBC Wales he'd resist the invitation to say sorry: "Well, the committee don't so I think I'd rather listen to the committee than a few strange backbenchers with little axes to grind.

"If the committee had said apologise, clearly we would have done. The committee don't go anywhere near the word apology, so why should we?"

Money-saving idea

The sacked England football coach Steve McClaren is apparently to be paid £2m for not coaching the team during the next two years.

If the FA are reading this, they may like to know that I would be prepared not to do the job for half that.

I would suggest Alistair Darling might make a suitable replacement for McClaren but the idea of the Scots running English affairs couldn't happen, could it?

On the mend

Paul Flynn hasn't let a mini-stroke stop him blogging.

He reports good treatment at the hands of the NHS in London. (Has the illness sent him on message?).

One of the tests applied by nurses to test the Newport West MP's recovery was to ask if he knew the name of the Prime Minister.....

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Oh, Darling

It was jaw-dropping stuff. The Commons chamber is home to more than its fair share of fake anger and pantomime drama, but the clashes over Alistair Darling's statement yesterday were real enough.

The gasps from MPs were genuine as the sheer scale of the security breach of child benefit details - and details of how they were lost - emerged.

The body language on the Government front bench, in the words of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail, suggested the demeanour of "the hired mourners from a Chicago funeral partner".

Calling off the election that never was, Gordon Brown said his Government had proved its competence during his first months in office. Ministers can't be held directly responsible for an official sending the UK's entire child benefit data in the internal post, but questions of competence have followed cock-ups at the Home Office and the Northern Rock debacle.

This week - two emergency Darling statements in two days - has evoked memories for some MPs of some of the less good days enjoyed by John Major's Government. Remember John Smith, late Labour leader?

"If we were to offer this tale of events to the BBC Light Entertainment Department as a script for a programme I think the producers of Yes Minister would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. I think it might have even been too much for Some Mothers Do Have 'Em. But Madam Speaker, the tragedy for us all is that it is really happening, it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn't start and the hotels fall into the sea".

Gordon Brown's Government isn't there yet, but the economic forecasts are less than rosy and once an administration loses a reputation for competence it's very hard to recover - ask John Major.

Alistair Darling has been criticised for dullness, but he is widely seen at Westminster as one of the more competent Ministers. Perhaps he's just been unlucky to have been holding the parcel when the music stopped.

Mr Brown's favourite joke, in his last job, was that there are two types of Chancellor -
those who fail and those who get out in time. Mr Brown doesn't think he failed.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Christmas is coming

There's nothing so ex as an ex-politician, as the saying goes. But there are consolations - the pay-off from the public purse, the pundit slot on and...... an invite to Peter Hain's Christmas party.

Last year some invitations to the Cardiff Bay bash went out in the wrong envelopes. This year some have been sent to retired politicians - e.g. Owen John Thomas AM, who stepped down in May.

Invitations have been posted to names on a list that pre-dates the Assembly elections last May.

Perhaps the elections passed the Wales Office by or its Ministers are still in denial about the outcome?

Was it something we said?

In the five months (next week) since Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister, he's visited Iraq, the United States, Portgual, France, SNP-run Scotland, Northern Ireland and a few other parts of the globe.

There's one corner of the United Kingdom yet to be visited by the new PM. You can probably guess where it is.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan tried to find out more about Mr Brown's travel plans via parliamentary questions.

Here's the exchange, from Hansard:

Cheryl Gillan: "To ask the Prime Minister when he last visited Wales; and when he next expects to visit Wales."

The Prime Minister: "A list of my UK visits will be published in the usual way following the end of the financial year."

It's good to see the age of evasion is no more in this modern, transparent, new political era.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Breaking news and more..

News that may send the Elfynometer soaring......Plaid Cymru MPs have been reprimanded by a House of Commons committee for using taxpayers' money to pay for newspaper adverts in the run-up to the Assembly elections earlier this year. Parliament's standards and privileges committee has told Hywel Williams, Elfyn Llwyd and Adam Price to repay the cost of the adverts which were funded by an allowance set up to allow MPs to communicate with their constituents. The MPs said they acted on the advice of parliamentary officials.

You can read the report here.

The Plaid MPs say they will repay the money - either from party funds or their personal bank accounts.

The adverts will now count as campaign spending, pushing Plaid over the limit for the Assembly election, although parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd says the Electoral Commission will accept that.

He won't be taking up Labour's invitation to apologise for the misuse of public funds, as this was not demanded by the report:"Why should we?"

Friday, 16 November 2007

Law-makers in Need

This being Children in Need day, in common with other BBC journalists I am of course writing this in fishnet stockings while perched on a desk singing out of tune. Heh, it's for charidee. If you donate enough, I might actually put a suit on and go to work.

But I digress. As a parliamentary correspondent, I'm often asked: "David, how do I change the law?"

It's not an easy question, so I'm grateful to the Conservatives for drawing attention to some studious work (by Professor Keith Patchett) for the Institute of Welsh Affairs that pre-dates but anticipates the Government of Wales Act and gives an idea of the complexity of the situation.

This, in brief, is a research note prepared for Tory MPs, summarising Professor Patchett's work on the sources of Welsh-related legislation.

Current mechanisms for legislating for Wales

1.Wales-only Acts of the UK Parliament
2. Provisions in Acts of the UK Parliament applying to Wales specifically
3. Acts of the UK Parliament applying to England and Wales as a single jurisdiction
4. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly under Acts or exceptionally under Whitehall subordinate legislation
5. Subordinate legislation made by Whitehall specifically for Wales
6. Subordinate legislation made by Whitehall for England and Wales as a single jurisdiction
7. Measures made by the Assembly under Orders in Council modifying or supplementing existing legislation
8. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly Government under provisions of Acts
9. General subordinate legislation made by the Assembly Government as delegate under Assembly Measures

Mechanisms for extending the competence of the Assembly

10, Legislative competence orders modifying Government of Wales Act
11. Provisions in Acts of the UK Parliament modifying Government of Wales Act
12. Order of the Assembly for commencement of the Assembly Act provisions in the Government of Wales Act 2006

Possible future mechanism for legislating for Wales

13. Acts of the Assembly under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006

A sceptic might think that this complex situation has been created to make the rather simpler idea of a law-making Welsh parliament irresistible.

Now, where did I leave those tights?

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Better late than never?

You and I may live in a 21st century electronic 24:7 media culture where news breaks around the clock.

Others pursue the news agenda at a more sedate pace. A mere two weeks after they returned to this country from a top-secret trip to China, MPs on the Welsh affairs committee have, wait for it, put out a press release.

Here's the top line: "The Welsh Affairs Committee has visited China as part of its inquiry into globalisation and its impact on Wales. Members visited Shanghai and the Special Economic Zone of Xiamen in the southern province of Fujian."

Well, hold the front page. What the press release doesn't say is that the MPs were rather restricted in what they could see by the Chinese Government.

Chairman of the Committee Dr Hywel Francis MP said: “The most striking part of our visit to China was becoming aware of the current scale and pace of change. We also saw many examples of a workforce that is increasingly skilled, flexible, adaptable and hard-working.

"The importance attached to universities and skills was impressive. We witnessed a great respect for learning and saw how ‘Confucius Institutes’ are now being established worldwide in favoured overseas universities, including Cardiff. Consolidating existing links and establishing new ones between Welsh and Chinese universities is vital to ensure that education remains the key to harnessing globalisation.”

I know of no Welsh media outlet that works on fortnightly deadlines, but I guess the committee will be chuffed that at least this is one outlet that used the press release.

I'm looking forward to receiving a Christmas card from the committee - probably around the middle of January.

Don't all rush at once

It was, said the (UK) Government, as "another innovative step forward in engaging the public and Parliament in the development of future Government policy".

Peter Hain said: "I now want to ensure that the people of Wales can have a full and active role in the development of the UK Government’s policy programme, which is still hugely significant in Wales and will impact on most aspects of Welsh life."

Voters were invited to contact the Wales Office by e-mail or letter.

So how many responses did the Wales Office get to its appeal for the people of Wales to play a full and active role?

Er, 18.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Too many MPs?

The Justice committee's inquiry into devolution has been told that Wales has too many MPs and is over-represented at Westminster.

Robert Hazell, head of the devolution unit at University College, London, said:"Wales should have the same electoral quota as the rest of the UK"

There are currently 40 Welsh MPs - he says they should be cut to 33. Which seven would you get rid of?

Tory chain gang caption competition

Peter Hain can relax, for once. This week's photograph features prominent Tories Cheryl Gillan and Nick Bourne digging for victory/digging themselves into a hole/modelling the latest Guantanamo chic look. You decide.

Not a lot of people know that

The Ministry of Defence employs 171 Welsh speakers, according to Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Not very grand

Devastating news for political anoraks: this week's meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, that megastore of talking shops, has been cancelled.

Slightly better news for political anoraks: there's a bit of a row about who is to blame.

[Welsh Secretary] Peter Hain's Wales Office told me [Shadow Welsh Secretary] Cheryl Gillan asked for it to be cancelled.

The Conservatives say the Government called it off after discovering Mr Hain, who is also Work and Pensions Secretary, was double-booked. Ms Gillan is furious at the suggestion she was behind the cancellation.

Mr Hain's office insist that they were told by the Tories that they would vote against the decision to meet to discuss both the Queen's Speech and the Pre-Budget report. They had demanded two separate meetings to discuss both events.

The Wales Office is now looking to schedule a Welsh Grand in December, long enough after both events for no-one to care.

Some must have prizes

Most politicians are selfless altruistic souls who wouldn't dream of grabbing any glory for their deeds or demanding recognition, let alone publicity, for their work.

So it often falls upon others, sometimes the media, to reward these efforts with appropriate deference.

Yes, the annual AM.PM awards are almost upon us. The winners will be announced live on the BBC programme of that name on December 5.

These are the categories:

Politician of the Year;
Newcomer of the Year;
Communicator of the Year;
Campaigner of the Year;
Most Outspoken.

A panel of experts, made up of pundits from the programme, will decide the winners. You may well have your own idea of deserving recipients for these awards. I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, 8 November 2007


Another story about money. Rumblings about the new £10,000 communications allowance continue.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the rules. Plaid Cymru are still fighting complaints about the use of the taxpayer-funded allowance to pay for newspaper adverts during the Welsh Assembly election campaign.

Cardiff North MP Julie Morgan says the leaflets ConservativeHome highlighted were cleared by the Commons fees office. They may refer to the new Prime Minister and her support for his deputy Harriet Harman, she says, but those are matters of fact.

The creation of the allowance was controversial in itself - the arguments clearly won't go away.

Hey big spender?

There's a bit of a row, as you might expect, over the increase in the Wales Office budget - at a time when other government departments are told to tighten their belts on administration costs.

The Wales Office (the Whitehall department that represents Welsh interests at Westminster) will see its budget rise from £4.68 m to £8.44m next year, although the figures are disputed by the department itself.

I've just interviewed Peter Hain's deputy, Huw Irranca-Davies, who explained that when you include LCOs, front-loading, framework powers, revenue spending and exclude capital spending, it's nowhere near as big as 80 per cent - although the jargon did leave me struggling by the end of that answer.

The £4m increase is a drop in the ocean of an overall Welsh budget of £14bn but that won't stop opposition parties highlighting the scale of the rise.

Oh, and here's a photograph of the Secretary of State for Wales (he's on the left), showing how the countryside is still open. Peter Hain may have an Aga, but his wellies are definitely not green.

That question again

Some interesting thoughts from Peter Riddell in the Times on how to answer the West Lothian question (if I may be permitted to use the words "interesting" and "West Lothian question" in the same sentence).

He says the idea is to give devolved governments a bigger role in raising their own budgets. That would also help tackle the point made by Stephen Crabb recently that the current system fuels a culture in which there is an inbuilt incentive to demand higher public spending.

Peter's article is another reminder that the pressure for a review of the way Wales is funded is not only coming from west of Offa's Dyke. Arguments about public spending in Scotland may be driving the debate but Wales will be caught in the slipstream.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Happy (half) hour

This may come as a blessed relief or a shocking attempt to dodge political accountability, depending on your point of view. Some may even describe it as a slap in the face or snub to Wales. Take your pick.

The monthly parliamentary feast that is Questions to the Secretary of State for Wales will no longer take place every four weeks.

Instead, Secretary of State Peter Hain and his deputy Huw Irranca-Davies will be put on the spot every fifth week.

The idea is to make some of the larger Whitehall departments more accountable. The Wales Office has a small (although rising by 80 per cent next year) budget, relatively few staff and even fewer executive responsibilities. So MPs often ask Ministers to account for the actions of other Ministers, in Cardiff or in Westminster.

The Wales Office has also missed out on one of the reforms to Question Time introduced in the new session of Parliament. Those Ministers held accountable for 40 minutes or more at the despatch box can be questioned on topical issues.

Welsh Questions last but 30 minutes so MPs will need to use their ingenuity to devise questions with a more topical relevance.

Mission Accomplished!

It's amazing how frequently the most public words of politicians come back to haunt them.

So begins the blurb on a new book by Matthew Parris and Phil Mason - Mission Accomplished!

Its (involuntary) contributors include Idi Amin, Margaret Thatcher, Leon Trotsky and (frequently) George Bush.

Here's a couple of Welsh examples.

Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells: "If Prime Minister Sharon had lived....he is dead, isn't he? No? It's an easy mistake to make".

Indeed. And here's David Lloyd George. "I have never doubted the fundamental greatness of Herr Hitler".

That's one inscription you won't find on the new Lloyd George statue in Parliament Square.

The West Amersham Question

It doesn't feel like Wednesday. There's no prime minister's question time, which may disappoint David Cameron more than Gordon Brown after yesterday's exchanges.

MPs are instead embarking on several days' debate on the Queen's Speech. Well, some of them are - there are no Commons votes until next week so some will be catching up with their constituents.

Cheryl Gillan invited the Welsh media to her loft-style office in Portcullis House for her regular weekly briefing over coffee and biscuits.

She wouldn't be drawn on Stephen Crabb's views on devolution - pity that. Discovering Ms Gillan's inner thoughts on devolution is like getting blood from a stone. We never had that problem with Bill Wiggin!

She did suggest one potential problem with plans to raise the education leaving age to 18 in England, a question that emerged after she was having her hair done in a salon with a 17-year-old work experience person.

What happens if someone of the same age in Wales moves to England (perhaps her own constituency of Chesham and Amersham) a year after leaving school? Would they be prosecuted or forced back to school?

The most probable answer is that the 17-year-old's work would include a large enough element of training to qualify as education, training or an apprenticeship - but an interesting question nevertheless.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Tights and toll roads

Not wearing tights or medals, I do feel slightly under-dressed at state occasions such as the opening of Parliament.

There are no surprises among the Bills read by the Queen in a speech that was the shortest since Labour came to power, but do read on.....

The major flashpoints are likely to occur over anti-terror laws, where the Government wants to allow the police to continue to question suspects who've already been charged - and to give police the power to detain suspects for longer before charging them.

Welsh angle? Most of the Bills apply to Wales, in varying degrees. Three of them will allow the Welsh Assembly to draft laws in areas of education, planning and local transport.

The latter may be the most interesting - it would give the Assembly Government the power to charge motorists for using the new M4 relief road and trunk roads.

A G please, Carol

I have to admit the footage of Gordon Brown's contribution to the 25th anniversary of Countdown had passed me by. And I thought celebrity politics died with his predecessor.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Spot the athlete

Perhaps if I started wearing shades and nodding my head......

Perhaps not. What a great run at the weekend (I mean Paula in the New York Marathon not me in the Wimbledon Common Time Trial, obviously).

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

News travels

Many politicians dream of securing their place in history; most have to be content with at best a footnote.

But few achieve the recognition of being the subject of a pub quiz question in their own lifetime.

I joined a team in a basement bar around the corner from the Old Bailey in the heart of legal London last night.

Among the questions in the "relatively current affairs" round was this one: "Who recently resigned as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats?"

Not the sort of question you expect in a central London pub quiz - and possibly not a question the quizmaster expected us to get right.

Mind you, we didn't quite get the full correct answer which, according to the quizmaster, was this: "Lembit Opik, better known as one half of the Cheeky Girls".


Nick Clegg, the bookies' favourite to become the new leader of the Liberal Democrats says he's prepared to break the law to defeat the Government's plans for compulsory ID cards.

He said: "If the government seeks to make ID cards compulsory on every British citizen I will lead a people’s campaign to thwart the programme. I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will refuse to be forced to register."

This might carry more sway if he hadn't chosen to be photographed wearing his House of Commons ID on the front page of his website.

Probing the persuaders

Paul Flynn MP previews a parliamentary inquiry into lobbyists.

He points out that they operate far more subtly than in the past - "The crude bribes of the recent past, trips, meals and money, have been replaced by intelligent targeted flattery."

Lobbyists also tend to re-brand themselves as "public affairs consultants" and, at Westminster at least, have "gone underground". At the risk of prejudging his committee's inquiry, he argues that political lobbying still exerts great power and influence on legislators: "The Select Committee already has some hair raising evidence of dubious practices".

The lobbying industry was widely felt to be one of those aspects of Westminster life the new politics in Wales could and would do without.

But no sooner had the flags gone up outside Crickhowell House than various organisations, some fronted by familiar faces, sprung up, usually adding "Cymru" as a suffix to their name and/or claiming to be pillars of "civic society".

I was initially surprised at how (relatively) high-profile the Assembly lobbyists were, often appearing as political pundits. The Assembly Government has published details of meetings held with lobbying companies.

You could argue that operating "overground" did give their operation a greater transparency than their Westminster counterparts.

It will be interesting to see whether Paul Flynn's colleagues in Cardiff Bay choose to look at the industry.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Michael Ball's Granny

Most reporters in Wales devote themselves to a fearless pursuit of the Welsh angle in an attempt to engage our audiences.

Sometimes it is obvious - a story happens in Wales or involves someone whose fame is inextricably linked to their roots.

Other links are slightly more tenuous. There are celebrities with Welsh names who are strangers to the land of their fathers, even if the naming process has done their career no harm west (virtually) of Offa's Dyke.

There are others who probably didn't know they were Welsh until some enterprising reporter from Wales on Sunday alerted them to a distant relative. This website is particularly useful for reporters in search of a celebrity who once spent a windy weekend in Rhyl.

In politics, Conservative politicians sometimes found themselves tipped for the Welsh Office due to accidents of birth. Michael Howard and Tristan Garel-Jones are two members of the club of ex-future Welsh Secretaries.

Sometimes newspapers throw in Welsh links in apparent near desperation. I have never seen the evidence myself but I've been told that one newspaper allegedly reported The Beatles with the suffix "who once played in Aberdare".

So hats off to today's Western Mail. Michael Ball has had a hugely successful career in music and entertainment. But he has probably never before been definded by the fact that his grandmother came from Mountain Ash.

Channel hopping

Could responsibility for S4C be among future powers devolved to Cardiff Bay?

Here's an extract from question time yesterday and an insight into the views of the Culture Secretary James Purnell:

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): After a quarter of a century of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh language fourth channel, being overseen from Wales and Westminster, does the Secretary of State agree with Plaid Cymru and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that responsibility for it should be transferred to Wales, where the majority of Welsh speakers live?

James Purnell: If the hon. Gentleman wants to submit a proposal on that, we are happy to look at it. Traditionally, the process has been dealt with at the UK Government level because broadcasting has implications throughout the UK. In the same way, digital switchover involves spectrum planning throughout the whole of the UK, and the use of the licence fee or the use of public funding has UK-wide implications. I am happy to discuss that issue with him and the authorities in Wales if they want to submit that proposal.

Adam Price says informal talks have already taken place between Cardiff and Whitehall about the prospectn so perhaps we should watch this space.

If it happens, Plaid say S4C's budget should be "ring-fenced" to protect its programming. Would that not lead to Ministers at Westminster dictating how much the Assembly Government could spend in a particular area? The road to devolution has many twists.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Referendum fever (2)

Readers of this blog (both of them) won't be surprised to have heard Peter Hain suggest that an early referendum to give the Welsh Assembly more powers would be lost and therefore it might not be good politics to hold a vote before 2011.

The Secretary of State for Wales can't be accused of inconsistency on this issue.

Peter Hain, June 2005: "I note that the Richard Commission did not envisage primary powers until 2011. There is no consensus for a referendum today: it would be lost."

"My own view is that the new Assembly arrangements should be allowed to bed down through the next Assembly term between 2007 and 2011, and that there is no case for considering a referendum until at least the following Assembly term of office."

Peter Hain, November 2005: 'We need to be sure that there was a broad consensus of at least the level of 1997. When we call this referendum we have got to have a reasonable confidence we can win it.

"If we lost a referendum it would be disastrous for the cause of primary powers, which is why I am being cautious about this, and there is a constitutional reality check...If we lost a referendum it would be off the agenda for a very long time."

Peter Hain, July 2007: "I do not think you can guarantee in advance when we will hold a referendum. There is a process to try to achieve that objective. That is what the agreement is and it has been entered into in good faith. I am now rather doubtful whether it can be achieved."
Peter Hain, July 2007: "That is an ambition of the agreement signed between the two leaders, now the Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, and endorsed by respective Parties. I cannot anticipate the translation of that ambition into practice on an exact date. It is no secret that I have always said, and I have not changed my mind though if there is progress on realising that ambition then obviously I will have to take account of that, I think it is better for the first stage of the Government of Wales Act 2006 to bed down the extra powers provided for under both the Order in Council process and then, in parallel, the framework powers, which will give considerable extra power to the Assembly, and its capacity to deal with those extra powers has yet to be tested. I would have thought we needed a period to see how that beds down and see what the case is for going for full law-making primary powers, rather than to set a date in advance artificially. "

That Peter Hain - too consistent for his own good. But in politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. Mr Hain's comments made headlines because they were a direct response to the optimism (certainty?) of Rhodri Morgan and his Plaid coalition partners that a referendum will be held in or before 2011.

He also feels "bounced" into the appointment of his friend Sir Emyr Jones Parry as chair of the convention paving the way for a referendum.

That question again

The English are discovering that devolution is a process and not an event.

The Conservatives' latest version of their "English votes for English laws" policy gave constitutional anoraks the weekend of their dreams.

The arguments were familiar, even if the unionist case is now made most loudly by pro-devolutionists.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said of the Tory policy: "It would lead to the break-up of Britain.
Devolving power, whether to Scotland or Wales or to London has acutally increased the sense of cohesion."

Some might argue that the presence of nationalist Ministers in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff (in coalition with Labour) would slightly jeopardise that cohesion.

Mr Hain said of Conservative leader David Cameron: "He's creating two classes of MPs; the first class MP who's English, Scots and Welsh would be second class."

Isn't the creation of different classes of MP an inevitable consequence of devolution? Welsh MPs can no longer question Ministers about the NHS used by their constituents (it's run from Cardiff), whereas MPs from England can still hold Health Ministers to account in Westminster.

Mr Hain added: "This is a prescritpon for balkanising parliament and in the end for Scottish and Welsh voters to say if their MPs are second class then why should they remain within the union?"

A question the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond (a supporter of an English parliament) , is happy enough to ask - frequently. Part of the SNP strategy for delivering Scottish independence is to win support for the cause among English voters who read every week how they are subsidising public services in Scotland.

From a Welsh perspective (bubble?), it's sometimes difficult to appreciate there are two sides to the argument over how devolved governments are funded. A cursory reading of (UK) national newspapers recently will show you how pressure is mounting in England for a narrowing of the gap on public spending per head between England and the rest of the UK.

This debate all flows from the West Lothian question, with which constitutional anoraks have been struggling for more than 30 years.

Perhaps the solution to the West Lothian question, as apparently suggested by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, is not to ask it at all.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Crossword corner

A top tip from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Wales, courtesy of Facebook:
"Peter Hain is the answer to 9 Across in the Guardian cryptic crossword on Saturday 27 October."

Go on, have a stab at guessing what the clue was.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Lloyd George knew my father

This is it - the new statue of David Lloyd George unveiled in Parliament Square this afternoon.
Five grand-children, eighteen great-grandchildren, and countless great great grandchildren gathered among royalty and today's political leaders for the unveiling of the statue.
Lord Morris of Aberavon, who chaired the trustees who organised the appeal and errection of the statue spoke first. "Your royal highnesses, it is a great privilege to welcome you both." He then added in what some, not I, might see as a shameless piece of name dropping: ".....not for the first time."
Prince Charles said that although Lloyd George was proud of his Welsh roots he would be best remembered as a national and international statesman.
Away from the politicos and Liberal Democrats revisiting glory days, it did have the air of a family gathering, more wedding than funeral.
Among those present was Jennifer Longford, daughter of Lloyd George's mistress and later second wife, Frances Stevenson.
Mrs Longford has long believed that Lloyd George was her father although the list of family welcomed by Earl Lloyd George pointedly began a generation later.

Tory cats and pigeons

Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb has set the cat among the Tory pigeons with this attack on devolution.

His views are shared by the Monmouth MP David Davies, leaving Conwy's David Jones as the sole pro-devolution Welsh Conservative voice in the Commons (and I think he might quibble with that description).

Whatever you think of Stephen Crabb's views, there are some interesting thoughts there on the nature of devolved politics:

"Devolution has created a politics which is based overwhelmingly around calls for greater public expenditure and freebies for various sections of the the absence of any mechanism to ensure a line of accountability between Welsh taxes and Welsh expenditure, all Assembly politicians are incentivised to ramp-up calls for greater spending in Wales."

That applies across all parties, so there is limited meaningful debate on the size of the state in Wales. Perhaps Ron Davies has succeeded in creating "inclusive politics" after all.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

W(h)ither the Wales Office?

Adam Price's suggestion that the Wales Office be abolished has sparked a bit of a debate on Peter Black's blog.

One Price supporter questions whether there is a single example of Peter Hain changing Westminster opinion in the Assembly's favour.

Well, it's not this blog's role to defend Peter Hain but even his enemies would admit that he overcame the odds to deliver the last Government of Wales Act. The history of devolution is the history of compromise but the Act goes a lot further than some sceptical Labour MPs would wish.

Adam Price says his are personal views, not party policy. Indeed, four years ago Plaid Cymru issued a press release criticising the then apparent demise of the Wales Office.

"The Wales Office is presently central to the success of the Assembly", said parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd at the time. "Only when Wales gains a full parliament with law-making powers should the Wales Office be abolished."

That day may be still be some time off, despite the optimism in Assembly Government and newspaper circles.

Adam Price is also calling for the running costs of the Assembly - he estimates them at £40m a year - to be paid above the grant supplied to Wales by the UK Government.

It's a point also being made by the BMA, who say the cost of running Parliament isn't taken from the budgets for health and education.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Referendum fever, anyone?

Have you recovered from election fever yet? I'm getting there.

Gordon Brown's decision not to hold an election, having spent £1m of Labour Party money preparing for one, brought his honeymoon with voters to a swift end.

But for those of us suffering from withdrawal symptoms, help is at hand. Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan (with his Plaid deputy Ieuan Wyn Jones) has announced the name of the chair of a convention to plot the path towards a full law-making parliament for Wales.

The convention will be chaired by the diplomat Sir Emyr Jones Parry. Its make-up will be considered by a group of MPs and AMs.

The path to a parliament is subject to a referendum - and to agreement from Westminster. The convention will consider the date of any referendum.

Rhodri Morgan said: "It will be on or before the next election (2011). We can see no reason to depart from that commitment."

Not every Labour MP or indeed Cabinet Minister (I'm thinking Peter Hain here) shares his conviction that a referendum will be held before then.

Mr Hain welcomed the appointment but said: "the MP and AM group have yet to convene to decide the composition of the convention". That MP and AM group is likely to include such enthusiasts for devolution as the former Wales Office Minister Don Touhig.

But it would after all be totally unprecedented for a Labour administration to whip up excitement for a public vote only to decide not to hold one at the last moment. Wouldn't it?

Statue in the square

Parliament Square is home to statues of world leaders from Churchill to Mandela.

Within 48 hours it will also be home to a statue of David Lloyd George, the only Welshman (albeit one born in Manchester) to become Prime Minister of the UK.
His statue, sculpted by Glynn Williams (left), is currently behind scaffolding to await its unveiling by the Prince of Wales on Thursday. It will stand 18 feet high, including a slate plinth.

I met Professor Williams, head of sculpture at the Royal College of Art, this morning and got a sneak preview of the statue. He spent more than a year working on it, and many more years trying to get the go-ahead for it from various planning authorities.
Historian and Labour peer Kenneth O. Morgan rates Lloyd George as Britain's most radical PM. Without giving anything away about the final design, I don't think he or other fans of Lloyd George will be disappointed when the statue is unveiled.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Reckless? That'll do nicely

I'm grateful to Peter Black AM for a press released headed "Labour 'complicit in reckless lending' says AM".

If you're appalled by reckless lending, you can sign up here for a Liberal Democrat credit card. After an initial interest-free period you may find yourself paying a far from reckless 18.9 per cent APR.

Peter Black's ire was focused on mortgage lenders but I think the principle's the same (and the interest rate higher) so I hope I haven't quoted him entirely out of context.

Clearly he didn't have the Co-Op or Visa in mind when he said: "It is quite clear that the banks themselves will do nothing voluntarily to reduce the good living that they make out of the debt they have foisted upon their customers."

It's dark at night

A helpful statement of the bleeding obvious from the Welsh Assembly Government:

"With the clocks going back this weekend, parents are reminded that both darker nights and darker mornings mean children are more vulnerable on our roads as they are less visible to motorists.

"The Assembly Government urge’s (sic) parents to ensure that their children wear something bright and take extra care when out and about."

If only the Assembly Government would "take extra care" with its use of apostrophes you could almost trust it to educate your children.

Another top tip: "Bright fluorescent clothing shows up best during the day, especially in dull or misty weather but doesn’t show up after dark."

One more thing - don't forget to wrap up warm. (OK, I made that bit up).

Chinese whispers

I may have been asleep on my watch but I discovered by accident that a group of Welsh MPs are toiling on our behalf in China this week.

The publicity-shy Welsh Affairs Committee decided not to let journalists know in advance about their vital fact-finding mission.

Apparently, MPs on the committee did discuss advance publicity but decided against it.

They were also sensitive to questions about why they were going so far on taxpayers' money.

They also decided that rather than be followed by cameras and microphones they'd prefer to return with results they could then discuss in the comfort of Westminster. A discussion that would take place any pictures of their visit, which is something of a handicap when it comes to TV news.

The visit seems shrouded in the sort of secrecy that used to win medals under Chairman Mao.

We must await their return next week to find out why.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

In the pink

This is the MP for Conwy, Betty Williams. She's dressed up for a good cause - to highlight next week's "wear it pink day" - it's part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

She says: "So what do you have to do? It couldn’t be easier. Whether you are in an office, at school, or simply doing the shopping, on 26 October donate £2 to Breast Cancer Campaign and wear an item of pink - anything you like, lots of pink, a little bit of pink, as long as it’s pink."

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

No-jags Ming

If you've struggled to get to the betting shop counter to have a flutter on the next Lib Dem leader it's probably because there are Conservative MPs ahead of you in the queue.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan says she's putting a fiver on Lembit Opik to win. The odds are generous - around 50/1 the last time I looked.

She says she's even contemplating a flutter on Mr Opik's girlfriend, Cheeky Girl Gabi Irimia - she's an even more generous 500/1.

Mind you, I won't be putting my pocket money on it.

Sir Menzies Campbell breaks his silence over his departure this afternoon in a BBC interview.

He says he's proud that his party put the environment at the heart of political debate.

Indeed, Sir Ming made a personal sacrifice, putting his gas-guzzling Jaguar in a museum as a contribution to cutting carbon emissions.

Now he's gone few would begrudge him if he asked for the car back.

Strictly Lib Dems

Was Sir Menzies Campbell a victim of ageism? Some of the newspaper coverage of the party conference, particularly the cartoons, was cruel but was it unfair or just politics today?

At 66 he's not exactly old - much younger than some past prime ministers and two years younger than the current Welsh First Minister and the Australian Prime Minister.

Perhaps it goes down to appearance. Sir Ming may once have been an Olympic athlete but a serious illness makes him look older than he is. Sir Cliff Richard was 67 two days ago. Perhaps if Sir Ming had tried Botox and dyed his hair he might have got away with it.

The age factor was used to justify criticism of Sir Ming's failure to make an impact with voters.

Some have suggested that the leader of the Liberal Democrats needs to convince voters that he'd be a credible prime minister. I think this is a slightly novel approach - few voters ever assumed Charles Kennedy was a likely future PM but they liked his conversational style as a contrast to that adopted by the Labour and Tory leaders.

Lib Dem MPs have queued up to praise their formal leader - which raises the obvious question of why they got rid of him.

The two favourites to succeed Sir Ming - Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne - both went to the same school, Westminster, which may leave Gordon Brown as the only UK party leader not to go to public school.

The new leader will be announced in the week beginning December 16, having been chosen by an exhaustive ballot of Lib Dem members.

Now that they've decided to make leadership elections an annual treat, perhaps they should be turned into TV shows with viewers allowed to vote.

Strictly Lib Dem Fever anyone?

Monday, 15 October 2007

Lib Dem buses

I don't know - you wait years for one Liberal Democrat leader to resign - and then three come along and quit at once.

Within months Sir Menzies Campbell, Lembit Opik and Mike German will be able to form their own ex-leaders' club.

The details of Sir Ming's departure have yet to emerge. At the weekend he was defiant that he would continue - perhaps he had a visit from party bigwigs, not so much the men in grey suits as the men in orange sandals.

Peter Hain goes green

"I'm all in favour of saving the planet, Gordon, but Tony said a bullet-proof Jag came with the job....."
Your alternative captions gratefully received.
Photograph: Dimitris Legakis, Dragon News and Pictures.

Take me to your leader(s)

An alien landing in Wales and demanding to be "taken to your leader" might be in for a confusing response.

If s/he landed in the middle of a Plaid Cymru conference s/he might be offered the choice between the party's president, the party's leader, the party's parliamentary leader, the party's honorary president and the party's leader in the European Parliament.

An alien alighting at a Welsh Liberal Democrat conference would be offered the choice between the leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, the party's Assembly leader and the man styled Lib Dem "shadow Welsh Secretary".

Lembit Opik told the party's Aberystwyth conference: "And I celebrate the meteoric rise of Roger Williams to Shadow Secretary of State for Wales. Yes, the torch has passed to a new generation of Shadow Cabinet Member - described by one admiring fan as John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and the Dalai Lama all rolled into one, but better."

I suggested to Sir Menzies Campbell at their party conference in Brighton that the situation was a tad confusing. Not at all, he assured me, although the party now seems to recognise the problem.

Roger Williams's appointment as "shadow Welsh Secretary" ruffled some feathers in the party at Westminster - particularly among politicians who insisted that Lembit Opik remained their boss and not Roger Williams.

Well, no longer. It looks as if the MPs will be answerable to Mike German, who will have woken this morning to discover that he's slightly older than he thought.

Mike German will apparently be briefly leader of the Welsh Lib Dems before stepping down after next year's council elections.

That should leave him enough time for a farewell tour of Blairite if not Sinatra proportions.

But what of policy, I hear you cry? Lembit Opik's girlfriend Gabi Irimia told the Western Mail: "The only issue that wasn't raised was one I really wanted, the Barnett formula.

"Probably if I'm coming next year I'll push it harder and everybody can see I'm a dead boring girl".

Boring, the Barnett formula? Surely not. With national newspapers making comparisons between economic output and public spending there may be a few twists left in that debate.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The feet of history

Great excitement ahead as the weekend should offer definitive news on the future of Wales's longest-serving political leader.

I fear that Mike German's political opponents are not treating the leadership of the fourth largest party in the National Assembly with the seriousness it might expect.

Sadly, I will be passing up the opportunity of a sunny weekend in Aberystwyth to run the Cardiff half-marathon.

I have however taken the precaution of arranging mile-by-mile electronic updates from the seaside lest I miss an historic moment.

Running 13 miles is hard enough at my age without the disappointment of missing out on a coup by the Burnhamites.

Best of enemies

What a week. All those figures. Numbers swirling in front of my eyes. Not only the Barnes Runners draft accounts, but also my conference expenses. Apparently there was a spending review and a row over compensation for farmers too.

Enough of numbers. Back to the Punch and Judy show.

Labour and Plaid Cymru may have put aside their enmity in the Welsh Assembly but the entente cordiale has yet to reach Westminster.

Labour backbencher Nia Griffith was swiftly on her feet in the Commons today to raise the issue of advertisements placed by Plaid MPs at taxpayers' expense in newspapers shortly before the May Assembly elections.

(You remember, the one where Plaid promised to "kick New Labour into touch" before they realised the Welsh economy is actually quite "dynamic").

The electoral commission says Plaid should declare the adverts, paid for from House of Commons allowances, as election expenses.

Plenty of ammunition then for Labour MPs to throw at their coalition partners, sorry Westminster enemies.

Nia Griffith didn't get very far before the Speaker intervened.

Michael Martin told her: "In future it's best not to use business quesitons to attack an honourable member."

He wouldn't even let Leader of the House Harriet Harman respond:"I think I would rather leave this matter".

Is it 'cos we is Welsh?

Er, no. The Welsh and the Scots have not been disproportionately penalised by the UK Government over help for farmers affected by the foot and mouth outbreak.

Before history is re-written it should perhaps be pointed out that farmers in England have failed to secure a penny from the Treasury in extra compensation for the foot and mouth outbreak.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has had to find the money from the existing English agriculture budget - as his counterparts in Cardiff and Edinburgh have had to raid their own budgets to fund packages.

Mr Benn too failed to persuade the Treasury to cough up new cash.

There are separate arguments to be had over whether the UK Government should cough up as the outbreak has been linked to a government laboratory and to why the mooted Treasury package (£12m for England, £8.1m for Scotland and £6.5m for Wales) didn't materialise.

Is it 'cos there's no general election? Mr Benn said:"There is not a word of truth in the allegation that a possible election had anything to do with decisions on funding for the foot-and-mouth crisis, and I very much regret that this is being used in this way''.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Missing millions - another update

A statement from DEFRA: "We don't comment on leaked documents or provide an ongoing commentary on discussions with other departments. The package for English farmers has been met out of Defra's existing budget. However we do not yet know what the full cost of this outbreak will be or whether this can be met in full by the Defra budget. Scotland and Wales are considering their own measures to assist farmers."

So we may never know why or if the Treasury pulled the plug on the package.

Missing millions update

One theory doing the rounds is that in drafting the statement Defra assumed they had a deal with the Treasury - only to be told to find the money from their own budget.

That would explain why Wales and Scotland missed out. Why did the Treasury pull the plug, if it did?

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond says it might be something to do with the general election.

Politicians west and north of the border say the UK Government should pay up as its laboratories were the source of the outbreak.

More missing millions?

Here's a statement drafted by civil servants in Defra for their Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, to deliver on compensation for farmers affected by recent foot and mouth outbreak.

"This outbreak arises from an unusual set of circumstances and to reflect that hte Chief Secretary to the Treasury has agreed, exceptionally, to fund this package of assistance for the English livestock sector, amounting to £12m from the Treasury Reserve.

"I have also agreed with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that Scotland should recieve £8.1m and Wales £6.5m to assist them in countering the impacts of foot and mouth on their livestock farmers".

Clear enough? Except when Mr Benn got to his feet on Monday, this is what he told MPs: "I am announcing today a package of assistance for the English livestock sector, amounting to £12.5m. The devolved administrations are proposing to introduce their own schemes".

No mention of any cash at all. We're on the case.

I know my place

There's a backlash at Westminster over plans to allow MPs to jump the queue in Commons coffee shops.

Parliamentary staff have been reminded that MPs have priority access to facilities such as lifts, refreshment facilities and photocopiers.

I'm pleased to report that the Liberal Democrats have started a revolt. They've tabled an early day motion - parliamentary graffiti - to make their views known.

The motion's been signed by, among others, Lembit Opik and Charles Kennedy:


That this House notes with astonishment the announcement made on Tuesday 9th October that hon. Members should have priority access to services throughout the Commons part of the Parliamentary Estate; further notes that such an approach is expedient in certain areas at certain times, such as during a division, but not everywhere all the time; believes that this announcement serves to create a rigid two-tier system which is counter to an enlightened image of Parliament; further believes that there is merit in a general presumption of equality on the Parliamentary Estate; and urges the Administration Committee to reconsider."

It looks like Messrs Opik and Kennedy won't pull rank if you find yourself at the front of the queue for a large capuccino and a blueberry muffin - but I'll try to put their egalitarianism to the test asap.

Funtime Wednesday

Another fun Wednesday beckons. The first question time for Gordon Brown since he decided not to call a general election.

Monday's statement on Iraq was a sombre affair, light on partisan insults. Today's half-hour should be rather different.

The warm-up act, the hors d’Ĺ“uvre, the appetiser, is 30 minutes of questions to Wales Office Ministers Peter Hain and Huw Irranca-Davies.

The questions were tabled before Parliament returned from its summer break this Monday but that shouldn't stop creative MPs from posing more topical queries - perhaps raising the missing millions from the Welsh settlement in the spending review.

What will be the impact of the deal on the Labour/Plaid coalition government in Cardiff Bay? If the local government settlement west of the border mirrors that in England then councils may find it a struggle to keep council tax rises low in the run-up to next year's elections.

Will the "challenging" settlement create tensions between Labour and Plaid Cymru?

Plaid parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd says Ministers will have to prioritise the policies in their coalition accord: "They may have to make cuts here and there.

"We knew it was going to be tight. It is disappointing, not devastating is it?"

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Post-pre-Budget report

I managed to survive the day without using too much of the accountancy jargon thrust upon us after Alistair Darling's spending review.

As a bonus, we even managed to entice a Government Minister or two onto the airwaves.

But when you look at the small print of the Welsh settlement there are big questions to ask about why the Assembly Government budget this year is more than £200m less than it expected.

The answer, according to governments at both ends of the M4, is that the NHS in England (unbelievably you might think given its financial crises) actually underspent last year and under that formula I try to avoid mentioning a couple of hundred million or so that could have been spent in Welsh hospitals or on other public services was sliced off the balance sheet.

(Under the formula, Wales gets a share of any increase in comparable spending in England - and a share of any decrease).

The Assembly Government says it's keen to negotiate with the Treasury to get the money - after all it's twice what John Redwood sent back during his time as Secretary of State in the 1990s.

The reduction of up to £260m a year also allows the UK Government to claim bigger increases in Welsh spending, thanks to the lower base. (I should point out that spending will still increase in real terms, although not as quickly as the Assembly is accustomed to).

As you might expect, opposition parties are queuing up to attack what's been called the "worst" spending round since devolution.

That rather assumes all state spending is a good thing - you don't need to be John Redwood to prefer a more neutral ("tightest"?) term but the budget will certainly make life more interesting for Labour and their new best friends in Cardiff Bay.

Crunching those numbers

An hour to go until Alistair Darling stands up and my brain still aches from a little light number-crunching.

We don't have all the figures yet but we know a few numbers from which to draw conclusions.

It's one of those days that hacks, with varying degrees of numeracy, have to digest a vast array of statistics and then simplify them in a way that can be understood by the layperson without insulting those who know better than us what we are talking about.

The Welsh part of the spending review is likely to mean less money for the Assembly Government than it hoped but more than it feared.

Expect Ministers at Westminster to claim increases above inflation of more than two per cent - higher than Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Expect opposition MPs to challenge the figures by questioning the starting base used to work out the increase. Expect too questions about whether the Treasury has included European grants that had been destined for Wales anyway regardless of Alistair Darling's handywork.

Somehow we've got to work out where the truth lies - without using the following phrases: "Barnett consequentials", "objective one", "outturn figures", "convergence programme", "gross domestic product" and "fiscal consolidation".

I'm going for a brief lie-down in a darkened room.

All over Darling

Gordon Brown's favourite joke in his old job was that there are two types of Chancellor - those who fail and those who get out in time.

Mr Brown doesn't think he failed. Public spending has soared during the last 8 years, although that rate of growth is likely to slow down dramatically.

So a tough job for the man who's taken over at the Treasury, Alistair Darling, who unveils the UK Government's spending plans later today. Spending will go up but after the years of plenty the next few years will feel like a squeeze.

It's an early challenge too for the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition government in Cardiff Bay. They have a long shopping list of promises - they'll find out today whether they can pay for them.

We are talking real terms (after inflation) increases, although smaller than we have become accustomed to, so the settlement could be (probably will be) presented as generous or mean-fisted, depending on who is doing the spinning.

If Plaid think the latter they could always blame the colonial London government (I paraphrase) for failing to come up with the money, without alienating their Welsh coalition partners too much.

But with health and education the main winners in England, the Welsh budget should not suffer disproportionately, give or take the odd argument about spending formulas.

More on this throughout the day, but now for something completely different.

I bet you've always wondered how Ministers use taxpayers' money to fund their reading matter.

Here's a list of the subscriptions taken out by the Wales Office, as listed by Secretary of State Peter Hain:

"Dod's Companions, including National Assembly for Wales companion, Vacher's Quarterly,
Economist, The Spectator, Tribune, New Statesman, Prospect, Whitehall and Westminister World, Private Eye, Golwg, Y Cymro, and Welsh Farmer."

Somehow I can't quite see Peter Hain settling down in an armchair with a copy of Y Cymro or Welsh Farmer. Aga Magazine perhaps........

Monday, 8 October 2007

Radio silence at Wales Office

They have a funny old news sense in the Wales Office, the Whitehall department that represents Welsh interests but has no executive functions.

A few weeks ago they were trying to persuade us that a Minister climbing Snowdon was a story - would we like to interview him?

Perhaps not. How about his incredibly newsworthy visit to a salt factory on Anglesey? Probably not worth holding the front page for.

Then there was his absorbing visit to Llangollen. I think something else may have hit the headlines that day.

Today, with the Prime Minister answering questions about his decision not to call an election, we thought we'd like to speak to a Minister.

We rang the Wales Office. You can guess the reply.


The secret of comedy is said to be good timing - you could make a similar argument in politics.

So here's something from my diary for 6pm tonight, organised by Progress, a Labour Party pressure group.

"Brown's first 100 days: Advantage Labour?"

Speakers include Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Wales.

Gordon Brown's 100th day was last Thursday. I suspect today's meeting may focus rather more on days 101-104.

Household names

It's a big story, leading most bulletins and newspapers.

So who do Welsh Labour put up to explain Gordon Brown's decision not to call a general election?

The Secretary of State for Wales, perhaps? His deputy? Welsh MPs in the Brown Government, perhaps at the Foreign Office?

The secretary of the Welsh Group of Labour MPs? An MP in a marginal seat relieved (reprieved?) by the decision?

Er, no. The Wales Labour Party offered broadcasters the Welsh Assembly Member for Caerphilly.

Perhaps the age of spin really is over - or perhaps the more relevant guests were too embarrassed to appear.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Relieved of Westminster

There won't be an election this year.

I know we political hacks are supposed to salivate over every dash (stumble) to the polls but after the saga that was the Welsh general election, and the exhaustion of three weeks of party conferences, I confess I am mightily relieved to have escaped another bout of election fatigue.

I guess voters (or non-voters) who don't share my enthusiasm for politics will be even more thrilled by the news.

That doesn't mean we won't be spending the next few days dissecting what it all means and how much of a hit Gordon Brown will take for flirting with the idea of an unnecessary election before dropping the idea when a few polls started to look ropey.

Perhaps the Prime Minister was put off by all those "DC for PM" posters that greeted him on his photo-opportunity yesterday.

It was flattering to see them but I can assure readers that I have no plans to become Prime Minister and that my priority remains BBC Wales audiences....or did the posters refer to another DC?

Friday, 5 October 2007

Diary date

A date for your diary, but not one in November. The UK Government will reveal the results of its spending review - and the pre-Budget report - next Tuesday.

A last chance to bribe us with our own money before polling day? Or a long-scheduled piece of political furniture? Today's polls make an election less likely.

The pre-Budget report offers Alistair Darling a chance to respond to Tory initiatives on stamp duty and inheritance tax - two policies that appear to be playing well with voters despite questions about how they would be paid for.

The spending review will set out public spending limits between now and 2011, including the Welsh Assembly Government's budget.

There will be more money for health and education in England, which means a bigger budget for Wales, but the rate of increase will slow down dramatically compared with the past few bountiful years.

Those Labour/Plaid Ministers will find themselves with some tough decisions to take if they're going to deliver the policies they've signed up to.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Time and a half

One of the casualties of spending three weeks by the English seaside is that I haven't always been able to get my daily diet of S4C2, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Welsh Assembly's proceedings.

Fortunately, colleagues have been keeping me up to date. Apparently, on Tuesday AMs did not finish their "plenary" session until past 5.40pm - unlike Westminster, the Assembly has prided itself on family-friendly hours.

That explains this extract from the Assembly's official record of proceedings:

"Lorraine Barrett: Deputy First Minister, I said to you earlier that I have to leave—the statement has run on much longer than I expected, and my three-year-old granddaughter is waiting to be picked up."

And here's an extract from the Assembly's unofficial record of proceedings (Facebook):

"Jenny is in plenary."

Good to know those laptops on the politicians' desks are being put to good use, isn't it?

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Fortune favours...?

The queues for David Cameron's speech already stretch around the Winter Gardens. It's David Cameron's big day - and probably the last major leader's speech here.

The Tories are giving up on Blackpool, long rejected by Labour. Its conference facilities are poor, its accommodation worse, its (visiting) drunks a traffic hazard. Blackpool has a great political history - Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister during the Tory conference here in 1963.

Margaret Thatcher made her first conference speech as Prime Minister here. William Hague and David Cameron made the speeches that made their names here.

But enough nostalgia, what of the future? When will the election be? Gordon Brown won't tell us so I went to see Sarah Petulengro. Sarah has been telling futures on Blackpool's North Pier for more than 20 years.

She's predicting an earlier than expected election although having stared into her crystal ball she wasn't prepared to name the date. (November 1?)

She predicts surprises ahead - that will be a relief for Welsh voters suffering from election fatigue.

Sarah found time to look into her crystal ball on my behalf - apparently I too have big changes ahead - good ones - although I do have some obstacles to overcome first.

You can watch Sarah's political analysis (it was free - she turned down our offer to cross her palm with silver) on Wales Today this evening. More on the Petulengros here


Another Blackpool early morning. I do feel sorry for those whose journey to work doesn't involve a tour of the illuminations.

In the BBC office - the wintry car park of the Winter Gardens - other reporters on daft o'clock duty shiver and sniffle.

The conference cold is omni-present. Three weeks on the road have taken their toll.

Home beckons for a day or two. A first Sunday off in four. Oh, hang on. It looks as if Alistair Darling is bringing forward the UK Government's spending review to next Monday. Marvellous.

And an election to follow? Another month away from home? Well it looks like November 1 even if Gordon Brown's people say he hasn't made his mind up yet.

What fun. All our Christmases have come at once.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Look on the bright side

Whose analysis of the Welsh economy is this?

"A very vibrant local labour market, boasting levels of unemployment and employment that are amongst the best witnessed for a generation."

And this?

"In any dynamic economy jobs are lost as well as created - what is important here in Wales is that we continue to create far more jobs than we lose. To focus only on the losses and company closures rather than on the new jobs and company expansions that are being created paints a false picture of the Welsh economy, and serves only to talk Wales down when in reality we continue to punch above our weight."

Yep, you've guessed it - that's the leader of Plaid Cymru talking in his new role as deputy First Minister. I've no idea who Ieuan Wyn Jones could be talking about when he refers to those who "talk Wales down when in reality we continue to punch above our weight" and paint a false picture of the Welsh economy.

Here's one analysis from a prophet of doom: "And while the richer areas of Britain are flourishing the Welsh economy is struggling. Hundreds of manufacturing jobs are being lost every month - in the north, south, east and west. Farmers are living in poverty. Our young people are being forced out of their communities to find work."

What a remarkable turnaround in the economy since those dark days of five years ago forced the Plaid leader to make such a gloomy assessment.

DC on DC (II)

David Cameron on making St David's Day a bank holiday:

"I think there is a very strong case for it. It is something we would be prepared to look at very positively."

Asked about the cost to business, he said: "There is a good case to say that if you look at bank holidays we get rather less than some other European countries so I think that maybe there is something we can do there."

(Honestly, you spend thousands to send your boy to Eton and they don't even teach him about the difference between less and fewer).

Questioned about Assembly group leader Nick Bourne's claim that the current devolution settlement is untenable, Mr Cameron said the Tories would look at the case for devolving extra powers from Westminster case-by-case.

"I don't believe in some great leap forward. I think we have got to make this work in a sort of organic way rather than writing some great blueprint."

He seemed rather more relaxed about Nick Bourne's speech to a conference fringe than some MPs are. Cross words have been exchanged in Tory circles after Mr Bourne repeated his commitment to giving the Assembly full law-making powers like the Scottish Parliament.

He didn't use the p-word - Parliament - but more than one MP has been subjecting the speech to heavy textual analysis. The Tories may be united on many things here in Blackpool, after a conference that has been nowhere near as bad as some of them feared, but devolution stretches that unity.

DC on DC

Just back from the Derby room at the Imperial Hotel and my allotted five minutes with David Cameron.

I think I must have been only the 29th hack to interview the Tory leader today.

He did look just a little fed up having to switch at five-minute intervals between the various nations and regions of the BBC - from policing in Kent to the Scottish Parliament.

He's a polished performer and I didn't come away with a world exclusive.

But he did have fairly interesting things to say about Tory Assembly leader Nick Bourne's call for the Welsh Assembly to be given more powers and the idea that St David's Day could become a bank holiday. Cameron thinks it's an attractive idea and the UK has too few public holidays.

Will it appear in the Tory manifesto for the next (imminent?) general election? No guarantees.

I also asked this old Etonian if he's too posh for Wales. You can guess the answer.

Vote Blue, go Green?

Never let it be said that politicians say different things to different audiences.

Here's Nick Bourne, leader of the Tories in the Welsh Assembly, speaking to a fringe meeting at the party conference in Blackpool last night:

"On reflection the argument the ‘No’ campaign set out about the threat to the Union was, at the very least, over done, possibly even wrong."

And here's Nick Bourne, writing in the Daily Post, last month:

"With reflection I think the argument the ‘No’ campaign set out about the threat to the Union was, at very least, over done, possibly wrong."

David Cameron's been criticised for highlighting the environment but he seems to have persuaded his leader in the Welsh Assembly to start recycling his own speeches.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Right turn

Good news for Nick Bourne. The Telegraph adjudges the Tory leader in the Welsh Assembly the 51st most influential person on the Right in the UK.

That's one ahead of Samantha Cameron (Dave's wife), three up on Lord Tebbit and nine ahead of John Redwood.

Nick Bourne is apparently dead chuffed - even if some Tory activists are rather sceptical about his claim to be on the Right.

Roll on the top 50.