Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Bye for now

I have decided to spend more time with my family.

Forgive my use of this over-used cliche from the political world, but it is actually true. Today is my day at the office for a while.

Twenty years since I started work at Westminster, I will be disappearing for a few months to work on my childcare skills.

Reports that I am retiring on the proceeds of the takeover by a Dubai-based investment company of Charlton Athletic (I declare a small shareholding) are sadly wide of the mark.

The decision is prompted by the imminent arrival of our son. As an equal opportunities family, I will be taking the adoption leave while my wife goes out to work...

Admittedly, this is a risky, volatile, unpredictable time for a political correspondent to remove himself from the fray.

But the battle for the Welsh Liberal Democrat leadership will just have to cope without me.

I will miss the presidential election - but Lembit Opik's chances of taking this top job in the Lib Dems appear remote.

Listeners to Good Morning Wales will no longer be able to set their clocks by my appearance and can look forward to hearing a new voice at 6.30am.

By my return in March, the United States will have a new leader.

The Conservatives may have decided their policy on devolution.

Parliament's Welsh affairs committee may even have finished its two-year inquiry into globalisation.

It will certainly have started its inquiry into the National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Agriculture and Rural Development) Order 2008, dealing with the red meat industry.

Note to self: hurry back for that one.

People will wonder about the crying, the tantrums and the challenging behaviour. But the kids will just have to get used to their dad.

By next spring, my family will probably have decided it would like to spend less time with me.

I am back at my keyboard/microphone on March 23. Bye for now.

Question Time

Question Time was a pretty sombre affair today, even without the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown is in Brussels so Harriet Harman stepped in for 30 minutes dominated by today's unemployment figures.

William Hague, deputising for David Cameron, appeared to pull his punches as the Tories decide this is not the time for political knockabout.

He did attempt to link Gordon Brown with the crisis, based on the PM's claim to have avoided a return to boom and bust.

Sharper questions about whether the Government would take responsibility for the state of the economy came from the backbenches.

Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price suggested Harriet Harman apologise over "the failures in policy and the weakness in regulation that have contributed to the current economic crisis".

In response, Harriet Harman read out a (slightly surreal in the circumstances) prepared reply to a different question - about Iraq.

Perhaps Ms H was too embarrased by Britain's economic problems to remind the Commons of those MPs who have trumpeted economies that are currently in an even bigger mess?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Going, going....

Here's a joke doing the rounds in the Welsh Assembly this afternoon:

A big player on the European stage….

Going to be really missed…..

A very hard act to follow indeed….

But that’s enough about Michael Ballack not playing against Wales tomorrow night, what about Eluned Morgan then?

Ms Morgan is stepping down as an MEP next June and the rumour bill is already buzzing over her plans.

Here is Peter Hain's verdict: "As a friend and close Party colleague, I hope she will find an appropriate and senior role in Welsh politics in future because she is one of Labour's brightest stars and the Party cannot afford to lose her talents."

"Appropriate and senior?" Westminster is awash with former Euro-MPs although the smart money appears to be on her ending up in Cardiff Bay, with obvious vacancies in Cardiff West and Pontypridd opening up for 2011.

Willy-waving

It's an academic debate over a policy no-one seems to want to introduce.

But don't let that put you off the latest spat between MPs and Welsh Assembly Members.

The Welsh Assembly Government wants the power to scrap the right to buy council housing.

But it doesn't want to actually scrap the right to buy. Do keep up.

The Assembly Government wants to suspend the right to buy in some areas.

But to do that it is requesting wider powers that would allow Ministers to abolish the scheme.

MPs - whose approval is needed before any transfer of power - are not happy. At least, members of Parliament's Welsh affairs committee are not.

Their report says the Assembly Government should drop its request for wider powers or the order granting them should be blocked.

The (Plaid Cymru) deputy Housing Minister Jocelyn Davies says the committee can scrutinise but the Assembly will decide.

The Liberal Democrat housing spokesman Peter Black has accused the MPs of trying to dictate housing policy from Westminster.

The MPs say they are trying to be helpful.

Although one committee member did confide in me his analysis of the conflict: "It's willy-waving, basically"

Monday, 13 October 2008

Plaid's lords-in-waiting

Miss Wagstaff reminds us that Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool takes his seat in the House of Lords today while Plaid Cymru's would-be peers are still waiting for the nod.

Miss W suggests a link between the delay in the elevation of the future Lord Wigley and company and Plaid's opposition to the House of Lords.

There may be a slightly stronger link between the delay and Plaid's role in dialling Scotland Yard to report alleged selling of peerages by the Blair Government. (No-one was charged, all denied any wrong-doing etc).

Plaid's Westminister leader, Elfyn Llwyd had raised the issue with the former patronage secretary (aka Government Chief Whip) but progress with Geoff Hoon was slow.

He's now seeking a meeting with his replacement Nick Brown, of whom it is often said he is so loyal to the Prime Minister they share a surname.

Given Plaid's incidental role in helping Tony Blair on his way, perhaps the new Chief will prove more amenable to the nationalists' request for ermine.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Y Tŷ Mawr o'r Tu Mewn

It would be rude not to welcome another Welsh blog, particularly one trying to make up for the lack of Welsh language print outlets.

Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams has started his new blog today and sees it as a replacement for a newspaper column he once wrote.

It's proof, perhaps, that the world is moving online in an age when evening newspapers are increasingly printed during the night before publication and fewer people read the printed word.

Y Tŷ Mawr o'r Tu Mewn - The Big House from the Inside - is written in Welsh but translations are apparently available for those of us who don't speak the lingo.

If Iceland can do it....

I suspect the campaign for Welsh independence may be looking for another role model in the light of recent events.

This is what the Plaid Cymru AM Helen Mary Jones wrote in the Western Mail in August.

"Take Iceland as an example. It has a population of around 300,000 and is the tenth most prosperous country in the world (by GDP per capita) according to the International Monetary Fund. It is also the second most equal society in Europe. If Iceland can do it, Wales can."

Adam Price has reported how Iceland has a gdp £7,000 per head higher than in Wales with a growth rate double the Welsh level over five years.

"Why is it," asks Adam, "that small nations are succeeding more than ever before?"

He told the Western Mail last July: “Iceland, with the population of Cardiff, has achieved a very impressive economic growth rate of 10% thanks to an imaginative use of the tools and resources available to it."

Few would suggest today that Wales adopts a similarly "imaginative" approach.

Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy used the economic crisis to take a swipe at Labour's coalition partners today:

"Small countries don't necessarily flourish under current circumstances. Ireland is in some difficulty, to say the least, Iceland is in terrible difficulty.

"It is the strength of the United Kingdom economy as a United Kingdom that will ensure that we are in a position to withstand it [the economic crisis]."

We'll find out in the months to come just how strong that UK economy is.

'Keeping the show on the road'

Peter Hain caused something of a stir with his latest intervention into the debate on the Welsh Assembly's powers. So what of the views of his successor at the Wales Office?

Here are Paul Murphy's thoughts, as shared with the media during a briefing this morning:
"This ain't the time for dealing with constitutional issues. It's time to be dealing with the economy of the country."

The Welsh Secretary meets Sir Emyr Jones Parry of the All-Wales Convention tomorrow in Llandudno. He says he'll be listening, but if Sir Emyr asks his views.....

"I don't think there is any appetite amongst Welsh people at the moment to be wanting to deal in any sort of detail with referendums on future powers. That doesn't mean to say the convention shouldn't go on doing its work."

But he added: "I don't think it is a top priority, I really don't. I think the priority for government, both in Cardiff and London at the moment is to deal with the problems affecting people's lives.

"I don't think it needs somebody with a PhD in history to work out what my views on this are. You know my views.

"I think the issues that affect us at the moment in terms of people's lives, how they live, the economy, and the price and cost of living and so on are the things we should concentrate on.

"I'm not saying that the governance of Wales is important, it is. I just don't think it is a priority at the moment.

"I have always felt that it would be from everybody's point of view, whatever your view is on devolution, completely foolish to enter into a referendum campaign when you know at the end of the day that certainly from those who want extra powers that is likely to be lost and I think that we wouldn't be thanked by people in wales for concentrating on these issues at the moment when you have to concentrate on the issues which affect their everyday lives."

Asked how he would vote in any referendum, he said: "Let's wait and see what happens when it comes and see what the recommendations are. The views of the Welsh Labour Party are that there should be extra powers for the Assembly. As a loyal member of the Labour Party and the Government I don't divert from that.

"You know my views over the years but the Labour Party has spoken within its own conference on what it feels it should do, it's not for me to go against that.

"I just feel this ain't the time to be dealing with constitutional issues. It's time to be dealing with the economy of the country.

"That doesn't mean to say the convention shouldn't go on working, it should do but I'm sure that Sir Emyr will tell me that when he's gone across Wales at the moment people have told him what their priorities are. I'd be very surprised if they're talking of anything else."

Asked his own greatest achievement since taking the job eight months ago, he was succinct: "Keeping the show on the road".

Going global

An update on the long-running globalisation inquiry by Welsh MPs from committee member Hywel Williams: "I think we are all concerned that this should be finished as soon as possible. I wouldn't want to criticise any of the planning but it did grow unexpectedly.

"We hadn't foreseen how far-reaching globalisation and its inquiry would be."

He added: "Like Topsy, it grew and grew and grew. We were thinking of a straightforward investigation into globalisation. We then realised there were aspects to do with education and the mass media as well as economic matters.

"I am longing for the day when it is published."

He may not be alone in that.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A long time in politics

What were you doing in November 2006? It seems so long ago.

Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Charlton Athletic were in the Premiership.

Peter Hain was running Northern Ireland. The Spice Girls were preparing for their comeback tour.

In November 2006, the credit crunch was a granola bar. Vera Duckworth was hoping to retire to Blackpool.

Parliament's Welsh affairs select committee announced its inquiry into globalisation on November 17, 2006. The FTSE-100 index closed that day at 6,192.

Two years and several international flights later, the committee's report is apparently being written although there is no date for publication as yet.

During what was a major inquiry, the MPs spent £28,000 visiting China and £15,260.99 on a trip to Poland and the Czech Republic. They also went to Spain.

The inquiry has even lasted longer than one political career. The committee took evidence from Digby Jones before he became a Government Minister. He stepped down last week after 15 months as a Trade Minister.

It took evidence from Trade Minister Ian McCartney, who left government more than a year ago, and Welfare Reform Minister Caroline Flint, who has changed jobs twice since then.

The MPs heard from ITV Wales, who have since announced cuts in programming and jobs.

Since the inquiry began, the FTSE-100 index has fallen by 25 per cent. House prices have fallen by more than 10 per cent in the past year. Energy prices have soared. Vera never made it to Blackpool.

You could argue that this is a globalisation inquiry that has been slightly overtaken by events and that much of the evidence gathered is now rather out-of-date.

You could also argue that the global financial crisis makes a globalisation inquiry all the more urgent.

But you'd still have to wait for the report.

So why the delay? Committee members point out that their workload has increased dramatically since they acquired the role of scrutinising requests to legislate from the Welsh Assembly.

Two years on one inquiry still sounds like rather a long time but I guess it's important not to rush things.

At this rate, the Tories' Roberts Review on devolution will be in the bookshops before the globalisation report is finished (although I wouldn't bet on it)

Strings attached?

The strange political ceasefire over the financial crisis and the Government's rescue package announced today appears to be operating in parts of the Welsh Assembly too.

Here's the view of the Plaid Cymru leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones: "I do support the package. I understand the concerns of taxpayers...when there's so much public money being set aside for the banks. But I do think it's necessary because the economic situation is unsustainable, with share prices plummeting.

"And it's not only a problem for us here in Britain...it's a problem that's affecting people all over the world. And it came to the point, where the Government in Westminster had to react in this way and I do hope this will help the situation on the stock markets, and will encourage banks to lend to each other."

Plaid's Treasury spokesman, Adam Price, has a slightly different take on things, suggesting political hostilities have yet to be suspended throughout Westminster. (Some people may find it refreshing that some MPs are still asking awkward questions):

"By calling for the restructuring of the entire banking sector the Government is tacitly admitting a systemic failure at the heart of banking caused partly by poor regulation, partly by the recklessness of the bankers themselves. But how do you restructure when the Government says it doesn't want to run the banks, won't put anyone on the Board, will leave the management intact and won't even place a real cap on executive pay?"

"The taxpayer is now the biggest sleeping partner in economic history. The Government says there are strings attached to this bailout but in reality they are so weak and so few that the Government's credibility, and that of the entire financial system, are hanging by a thread."

UPDATE: Plaid have been in touch to say that IWJ agrees with Adam Price's analysis. "No split". Perhaps he ran out of time during his Radio Cymru interview this morning to offer similar criticisms on air.

Mandy's Shadow

It's not only David Hunt's former SPAD who's making news. The former Welsh Secretary himself is making a frontbench comeback in the Lords.

Lord Hunt of Wirral, as he now is, will be shadowing the future Lord Mandelson when the Business Secretary takes his seat in the upper house.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Doctor Devolution

Here's a quiz question for you: what has Dr Who got to do with Conservative policy on devolution?

The answer is to your left. No, David Tennant did not, as far as I'm aware, have a say in a report on the subject commissioned by David Cameron.

But the man next to him did. Michael McManus co-wrote the report with Lord Roberts of Conwy (who apparently insisted on recognising the contribution of his 'ghost writer' with a credit.

The report, commissioned in March, is now known semi-officially as "the long-awaited Roberts Review". The Tories have risked increasing expectations by formalising the policy review and talking about settling the issue within a party where conflicting views run deep.

The more time that goes by without publication, the more opponents will question the lack of a coherent party policiy on the subject - especially when MPs have already been offered a free vote in any referendum on greater powers.

We may not know for sure what's in the bumper report, which the Tory leader has promised to publish "soon", but we can assume it's been well-written.

Michael's other published works include Sir Edward Heath's autobiography The Course of My Life, a critically-acclaimed biography of Jo Grimond and the life story of Nicholas Courtney, Still Getting Away With It.

Nick Courtney is best known as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in Dr Who.
which sort of explains the photo above and various others here.

A passion for Dr Who may not in itself be a great help in writing a tome on Welsh devolution, so I presume Michael is relying on the expertise he gained as a special adviser to David Hunt during his time at the Welsh Office in the early 1990s.

His report is likely to disappoint those Tories who want to "exterminate" the Welsh Assembly.
You may be surprised that it (an interim report) apparently runs to 20,000 words.

Don't be: the Heath autobiography ran to 360,000 words. David Cameron got off lightly.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Reshuffle fever abates

Iain Dale reports that the reason Gordon Brown didn't merge the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland jobs was because he would need to legislate to do so.

A similar problem befell Tony Blair when he tried to abolish the Welsh post some years ago. Only after the Wales Office was placed into what was then the new Department for Constitutional Affairs did No 10 discover numerous statutory references to the Secretary of State for Wales.

(In a legendary cock-up of a reshuffle, the Wales Office itself had briefed that its boss was to be known as the Minister for Wales. The Scotland Office had removed its own nameplate).

I'm not lawyer but I'm not sure the problem is insurmountable. You could use the short-hand description Secretary of State for the Union or Nations Secretary while appointing one person Secretary of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Politics is full of unofficial titles - Deputy Prime Minister, anyone - that creep into use, or indeed official titles that are seldom used - First Lord of the Treasury, First Secretary of State.

Perhaps the real reason the merger didn't happen was to do with unfinished business in Northern Ireland and the political damage (to Labour) caused by having a part-time Scottish Secretary.

As things stand, we shall probably have to endure months more of speculation along similar lines in the run-up to the next reshuffle.

Sink or swim

The joys of the mobile age......ambitious MPs and peers no longer have to wait by their phones for a call from Number 10 at reshuffle time.

The leader of the Lords, Lady Ashton, was having lunch with her Tory opposite number when the call came. Lord Strathclyde said: "It is a post that I think surprised her almost as much as me, since on Friday I was having lunch with her when the Prime Minister rang her on her mobile telephone.

"He, I have to say, was even more surprised to hear that she was having lunch with me."

The new Transport Minister, Lord Adonis, told peers: "My call came when I was in the Wallace Collection. The custodian asked me to turn off my mobile phone. I did toy with telling him it was the Prime Minister on the line but thought he might not believe this so I made a
rapid exit and took the call in the street."

Lady Ashton's replacement, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, was apparently in a swimming pool when the PM called her. Waterproof mobiles....what will they think of next?

Bonding

Oh to be a fly on the wall......Labour MPs and AMs are being invited to a party "bonding weekend" in Mid Wales.

The politicians are being offered the chance to brainstorm policy ideas over two days at the Elephant and Castle Hotel in Newtown.

The "awayday" takes place on October 17 and October 18 and will give Welsh MPs and AMs the chance to prepare for the next UK general election or discuss the minutiae of devolution policy over an orange juice or two.

Labour prefer not to use the word "bonding" lest anyone conclude that their AMs and MPs are not best buddies united on every issue under the sun.

Political party awaydays have had mixed results. The Conservatives tried the idea a few years ago but received more publicity for the casual dress sense of MPs such as John Redwood.

Welsh Labour say there's no dress code for their gathering. It's not yet known how many of those invited will show up although you might imagine that pretenders to Rhodri Morgan's crown might grasp the opportunity.

Labour have used the hotel for training sessions before. My spy in Transport House tells me that on previous visits they bumped into Lib Dems Eleanor Burnham and Lembit Opik (separately) in the bar.

Now there's a leadership dream ticket.....

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Over-seeing the spooks

One more Welsh angle: Kim Howells loses his job as a Foreign Office Minister.

He gets the consolation prize of the chair of the security and intelligence committee, which oversees the work of MI5 and MI6.

The Pontypridd MP is said to be happy with his new role, which has become a traditional one for
Ministers on their way out of government.

He takes over from Marget Beckett, who's returning to government as the new Housing Minister. Her predecessor? Paul Murphy.

Cock of the south

Gordon Brown's government reshuffle continues. You didn't expect the PM to take Sunday off, did you?

Welsh angles so far: Wayne David replaces Huw Irranca-Davies at the Wales Office. Huw's reward for his on-message blogging is promotion to DEFRA, where his views on hunting might please the odd farmer.

Wayne is replaced as Welsh Whip by Mark Tami from Alyn and Deeside. His job as unpaid assistant whip goes to Ian Lucas of Wrexham. Both took part in the coup against Tony Blair in September 2006 so will need supreme political skills to play the loyalty card with sceptical backbenchers.

Kevin Brennan is promoted to the Cabinet Office and Chris Bryant gets his first ministerial job as deputy leader of the House of Commons.

The Mail on Sunday has lifted the lid on the names of Cheryl Gillan's Buff Orpington chickens.

"I called the two hens Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors because of their blonde feathers and the cock is Boris because one of his tail feathers sticks out like Boris Johnson's hair." Well, that's her explanation.

The Mail also suggests Gordon Brown is considering an unlikely comeback for yet another Minister who have previously fallen from grace - David Blunkett. At this rate, it won't be long before Ron Davies is standing by his phone.....*

*Apologies to Peter Black who thought of that joke 24 hours before I blogged it. I really must spend more of my weekends reading Peter's blog.

Friday, 3 October 2008

The future's bright?




More proof that orange is this year's black in the political world. This Wales Office photo shows Paul Murphy "getting on with the job" to borrow a Brownite phrase as the Cabinet reshuffle takes place.

I've been juggling childcare with news today (no reshuffle news on Balamory yet) so I'm not as plugged in as usual but it appears we can forget all the media predictions that Mr Murphy would be sacked as the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are merged.

There were always many reasons why that merger would have caused political and practical problems for Gordon Brown at the moment, even if it remains his long-term ambition.
After eight years reporting the speculation that this may happen, a few more months won't make much difference. For the time being at least, three jobs that have previously been part-time are now full-time Cabinet roles.

It's just possible that tomorrow's newspapers don't rate the survival of the Wales Office as the big story. Apparently some bloke from Brussels (via Hartlepool) is coming back into the Government.

I've heard arch critics of Gordon Brown describe Peter Mandelson's return as a masterstroke. Some Labour MPs aren't quite as joyful but it will certainly keep political hacks busy.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

SHOCK AS OPIK TURNS DOWN TV GIG

It's one of those stories that has the ring of inevitability about it: Lembit Opik to star in Celebrity Big Brother.

Alas, sources close to the man himself say it's totally untrue. This comes as a slight blow to those of us for whom Lembit is good for trade, and possibly an even bigger blow for those Lib Dems who rely on newspaper stories of varying veracity to fill their blogs.

Mind you, on past form I'll wait for the next edition of Hello! magazine before discounting the prospect entirely.

Separated at birth?



Last week, The Sunday Telegraph reported how Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy was mistaken for Barry Humphries by a voter in Manchester.

In the interests of balance (it's in our DNA at the BBC), I should point out that the Telegraph has discovered how a voter in Birmingham saw similarities between Mr Murphy's shadow, Cheryl Gillan, and Hillary Clinton.

I can't see it myself, despite their fashion preference for orange. Cheryl did arrive for her 7am slot on Good Morning Wales wearing shades. Think Joanna Lumley as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and you're getting there, although there were elements of her gardening technique yesterday that drew comparisons with Margot Leadbetter from The Good Life.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Vote Blue, Go Orange


Cheryl Gillan and Shazia Awan model the Guantanamo Bay chic look being worn at Tory social action projects in Birmingham. My lifestyle guru's advice is that orange and purple are this year's black.

Political humility

Absolutely no prizes, but can you guess the Welsh Assembly Member who said this?: "I have a rich voice, similar in tone to Katherine Jenkins".

Ok, it wasn't Rhodri Morgan. Here's another clue: "I trust that I still have the necessary humility to deal with the crap that contemporary politics sometimes throws at us."

Here's another one: "I played Dick Whittington in the lovely hall in Aberdovey, wearing my mother's beautiful, tri-cornered, plumed hat and a pair of long, leather boots. At 5ft 9in I must have looked enormous on that stage."

No, not Ieuan Wyn Jones. If you really haven't guessed by now, have a look here.

Dave on tinkering

A few snippets from my brief conference interview with David Cameron:

With a global economic crisis, a political crisis in Congress and the stock market plummeting, I thought I'd ask him about the details of his devolution policy.

The Roberts review designed to settle Tory policy on the issue will be published "soon". The Tory mantra is to "make devolution work" although Mr Cameron added: "I don't think a lot of institutional tinkering is going to help".

I asked how he would react, as Prime Minister, if the Welsh Assembly Government approaches him in late 2010 or early 2011 about holding a referendum on giving the Assembly more powers. He told me I'd have to wait for the Roberts review for an answer to that question.

Will there still be a full-time shadow Welsh Secretary in his top team, even if Gordon Brown decides to merge the Wales Office with its Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts?

"That is certainly my intention....I don't have plans to change that" - although he did frame his comments in the context of the shadow cabinet. There are clearly no guarantees about what would happen in a Conservative government. (Will Gordon Brown really reshuffle his Cabinet this week in the midst of economic turmoil?)

Iain Dale tips Sir Malcolm Rifkind to make a shadow cabinet comeback in a combined role.

There was better news for Alun Cairns, more than three months after his suspension as Tory candidate in the target seat of the Vale of Glamorgan after his "greasy wops" moment.

"He works extremely hard. He cares passionately about the Vale of Glamorgan. He said something he shouldn't have. He made a mistake, he is very apologetic about that. I hope we can settle this soon."

It sounds like the suspension will be lifted shortly. I'd suggest Alun could go out for a pizza to celebrate but that might be misinterpreted.

Boris who?


It's the question Welsh Tories here are asking: who's that with Shazia Awan?
Shazia, from Cardiff, was a conference virgin before her arrival in Birmingham this week but has spent the past few days asking questions from the conference floor and rubbing shoulders with the stars of today's Conservative Party.
According to her blog on the official Tory website, she's yet to return to her hotel before 3am. (You know how it is. You fall into conversation about the Barnett formula, LCOs and such like
and, before you know it, it's almost dawn.....).
Shazia has passed her "parliamentary assessment" so can now apply for seats and is tipped for greater things.
She appears to be so on message she's even dressing in party colours: "Getting ready was bit of a mission this morning as I donned a yellow dress; promptly got told to change into blue... I did a rare moment of doing what I was told."
Hmm.....There is a new tradition of on-message bloggers at party conferences. Wales Office Minister Huw Irranca-Davies blogged from Labour's bash in Manchester.
Here's his take on Ruth Kelly's departure from Gordon Brown's Cabinet: "I do hope that the media handles this news responsibly, and refrains from spinning it into something it isn't."


Quite right, too. This was a routine resignation announced in a press briefing at 3am in a hotel lobby. It would be totally irresponsible to infer anything else from it.
Here in Birmingham, the conference has been overshadowed by the global economic crisis. David Cameron is making an unscheduled speech to the conference today amid talk of Parliament being recalled tomorrow.
The crisis has yet to hit some of the party faithful.
Unable to gain entry into the packed call here, one representative apparently headed for Harvey Nichols where she emerged with a Chloe handbag. I'm told they cost around £800 each.
Credit crunch: what credit crunch?

Monday, 29 September 2008

Dave reaches for the off switch

David Cameron was in cheerful mood as he mingled among the Welsh party faithful last night at a conference reception.

There was just the one Gavin and Stacey Joke and just the one teasing Assembly group leader Nick Bourne after his recent shower accident (he's still bearing the scars, prompting his leader to wonder whether he'd been fighting with shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan again).

The overall message was one that's already become a familiar one: "no complacency".

He told representatives they must not give voters a chance to turn their back on the party again. So there's a clampdown on MEP expenses and MPs are told to publish full details of their own claims.

"Get rid of the John Lewis list, get rid of the plasma screen TVs," said Mr Cameron.

Will you tell the AM for Monmouth or shall I?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Chat Show Cheryl

If it's Sunday, it must be Birmingham. Manchester and Bournemouth are disappearing in the rear view mirror as the party conference circus arrives in England's second city.

The Tories are in town "preparing for government" without looking too triumphalist about recent opinion polls.

Conservative conferences are often a struggle for hacks in search of a Welsh policy but there was a hint of one in the conference session just ended.

Tory Assembly leader Nick Bourne told party activists that a Conservative government might lift the ban on candidates standing in both individual constituencies and on regional lists.

Labour introduced the ban "to stop losers becoming winners" after several AMs found themselves elected to Cardiff Bay despite polling poorly in individual seats.

Mr Bourne may have been lulled into letting slip the idea by the comfort of his IKEA-style tub chair, his stage home for a conference session on the nations and regions of the UK.

The idea of re-storing dual candidacy may have been in the Tory manifesto for the last Assembly elections, but there's a big difference between a request to a Labour Government at Westminster and introducing a policy as a UK Government.

It was chaired by Cheryl Gillan, who looked very much at home in the role, more Trisha than Jerry Springer.

"Chat Show Cheryl" clearly has other options should she not find herself around the cabinet table in a Conservative Government.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Life begins.....

What did you get for your birthday? I got a leather jacket for my 40th to help me cope with the inevitable mid-life crisis. (Still waiting for the little red sports car).

For others, turning 40 is a national event on a par with royal weddings and bank holidays. Working in Manchester during the last few days, this milestone in Welsh politics somehow passed me by.

(I am assured that Labour's scheduling of its conference during this week is a coincidence and not a deliberate attempt to overshadow the birthday celebrations).

Perhaps Plaid Cymru will issue Adam Price mugs and teatowels for his 50th. A belated penblwydd hapus, Adam.

A tale of two conferences

Gordon Brown has been touring the BBC studios here in Manchester this morning. (I say studios, I'm talking about a few partitions in a large exhibition hall that used to be a station).

He looks and sounds more relaxed than for some time. Perhaps it's the challenge of getting to grips with a global financial crisis or the fact that this conference has gone far better for the Prime Minister than he dared to hope.

Ruth Kelly's resignation as Transport Secretary ("to spend more time with her family" - copyright Norman Fowler) will mean a Cabinet reshuffle and one is expected at the end of next week.

One reshuffle decision he has to take is whether the time is right to merge the Wales Office with its Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents. Would Paul Murphy be a suitable "Secretary of State for the Union" or will his Cabinet comeback end after nine months?

If the latter happens, and Jim Murphy (no relation) gets the job, Gordon Brown would be left with a Cabinet without any Welsh MP, barring unexpected promotion for David Hanson or Kim Howells. Rising star Kevin Brennan remains a junior Education Minister.

One option might be to have a Welsh Minister of State allowed to attend Cabinet when required but is would be a brave decision for the party of Kinnock, Foot, Bevan and Callaghan to have no full-time Welsh voice around the Cabinet table.

Merger might appease English anger at "special treatment" for the Celts but would win few friends elsewhere. Devolution to Belfast is not yet complete, another factor that may yet further delay the long-trailed merger.

Mr Brown denied that there were any "political issues" behind Ruth Kelly's decision to leave the Government despite well-informed speculation that she was one of four Cabinet Ministers said to be considering resignation as part of their unhappiness with Mr Brown's leadership.

It has been a strange, some might say weird, conference. The conference has shrunk from the corporate jolly of years gone by, as the Tories in Birmingham prepare for an influx of lobbyists keen to grease up to a "government in waiting".

Here in Manchester, there are fewer stands than previous conferences and the average age of the average delegate appears to have risen substantially in a party that has lost half its members since winning power. That should worry Labour.

The journalistic cliche of the week is to say that there have been actually two conferences taking place in Manchester.

There's the loyalist rally in the hall, where Ministers deliver rather over-the-top endorsements of the Prime Minister and delegates give the PM and his wife the pop star treatment.

Then there's the conference taking place on the fringe, in the bars and hotels inside the secure zone, where Ministers convinced that Mr Brown will never turn Labour's fortunes around bare their souls to hacks.

Both conferences merge on the final day with the singing of The Red Flag, words helpfully provided in the conference newsletter.

Birimingham beckons for the travelling media circus but not before a brief visit home to spend some time with my family.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Public Service Blogging

Some public service blogging to guide you through tomorrow's newspapers. How many of Gordon Brown's eye-catching announcements apply outside England?

The answer is not many. Prescriptions are already free in Wales, so the free prescriptions for cancer patients will make no difference there.

The educational technology allowances will help children from poorer families in England access the internet. In Wales, the first "free laptops" trial doesn't begin until next year.

Free part-time nursery education for two-year-olds (I should declare a parental interest) will happen only in England, and then only very gradually.

On health, Mr Brown promised: "In April a Labour Britain will become the first country in the whole world to offer free universal check ups for everyone over 40."

(Again, I declare an interest) What he should have said (but couldn't) was "a Labour England". So will the Welsh Assembly Government introduce free universal check-ups for the over 40s?

"In Wales, GPs already monitor high-risk patients and provide lifestyle advice to manage that risk. We are currently looking at ways of strengthening that approach for cardiac disease, stroke and diabetes by introducing a more co-ordinated approach."

I'll take that as a "no", then.

All rise....

Political stunts can divide voters. One man's poignant moment will send another reaching for the sick bucket.

For what it's worth, I thought the idea of Sarah Brown introducing her husband's speech worked well, giving a human touch to a PM in need of one with many voters even if it does make her more of a public figure.

I'm not sure the PM's aides will be thrilled by the number of mid-speech standing ovations earned by their boss.

The last political leader to receive so many "spontaneous" tributes was Iain Duncan Smith at a Conservative Party conference.

He was gone as leader within weeks.

New Labour, New Rules?

Paul Flynn is enjoying the conference from a safe distance, eschewing the bright lights of Manchester for the comfort of his armchair.

I'm not sure if his armchair has internet access but here in Manchester Newport West CLP are behind a move to reduce the number of MPs needed to launch a leadership bid where there is a vacancy for the top job.

Newport activists want to reduce the proportion of MPs nominating a candidate from 12.5 per cent of the parliamentary party - currently 70 MPs - to 7.5 per cent, which would mean a candidate could launch a campaign with 42 nominations.

You may not be surprised to learn that the party's national executive is resisting the proposed rule change.

Time to complete devolution?

A quick quiz for you: which senior UK politician delivered this fiercely pro-devolution speech?

"It's time to complete devolution......there is something more vital at stake for your entire society - that only the completion of devolution can deliver.

"How can you, as an Assembly, address common criminality, low-level crime and youth disorder when you are responsible for only some of the lever for change?

"When you have responsibility for education and health and social development but have to rely on Westminster for policing and justice?

"Full devolution is the way to deliver better services, tailored to the needs of all communities, regardless of the politics. Is is the best way for you to serve them. "

You can find the answer here. Somehow I don't think this is a speech the PM will deliver at any Welsh Labour conference sometime soon.

The People's Laptops

Gordon Brown will use his speech today to launch a new educational technology allowance that will pay for broadband connections, software and computers for poorer families who currently lack internet access at home.

Students of Welsh politics may remember the "free laptops" idea put forward in the Plaid Cymru manifesto for the last Assembly elections, a policy currently in development.

Gordon Brown's plans will apply to England alone and are funded from existing budgets, so there's no spin-off cash for Wales. As yet we don't know the timescale for their introduction so there's still time for the Welsh Assembly Government to steal a march on Mr Brown before being outflanked by the UK Government.

Mr Brown will also unveil details of (long-term) plans to expand nursery education in England. It may be telling that the two trailed ideas from the speech will be implemented through the department run by his former aide, the Schools Secretary Ed Balls.

One stylistic note: the Prime Minister will apparently be using a lectern rather than the fashionable Cameronesque "look at me, no hands" wander around the stage while talking from the heart (autocue).

Just as well, really. Some of us are still dizzy from Nick Clegg's tour of the Bournemouth stage last week.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Gordon has them rolling in the aisles

It was a plastic marquee in the centre of Manchester but for a few hours it became a corner of Wales.

"Croeso i Gymru" beamed Neil Kinnock as Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah arrived for Welsh Night at the Labour conference.

The PM gave a confident, relaxed, witty performance that delighted his audience. Yes, he really did. "Why can't he do that all the time?" asked a frustrated Minister afterwards.

You'll have to take my word for it, as we were ordered to turn off our cameras after filming his arrival. Perhaps he was more relaxed because he wasn't being filmed.

He told a couple of funny stories, including one about Amy Winehouse explaining how her husband had a lot in common with Nelson Mandela that will probably become part of his staple anecdote regime.

Party leaders attend dozens of these receptions during conference weeks so there is an element of repetition about the speeches.

That must be the explanation for his list of Labour stalwarts. "I thank all the MEPs and MPs, all the councillors....." He was so grateful he thanked the same list twice.

Those Welsh Assembly Members present were far too polite to point out the obvious omission.....

Floats like a butterfly......

Good news for Plaid Cymru: their leader is a new entry in a Telegraph list of the top 100 lefties in the UK.

Ieuan Wyn Jones comes in at number 83 - four ahead of Neil Kinnock in a list compiled by Iain Dale and the Labour historian Brian Brivati.

Admittedly, the Telegraph does spell Mr Jones's first name incorrectly but the citation says: "His attacks on Labour for having lost its way ring true in a Wales that has benefited from devolution and Labour governments but often not as much as the Scots seem to have done."

All this and a trip to the Ryder Cup as well, where the deputy First Minister was among those who gathered to meet Muhammad Ali.

"He's a global icon, someone who's always been a hero of mine......" said the former World Champion.

(the old ones are always the best.....)

Bore da possums!



Paul Murphy is one of the most self-effacing politicians you could hope to meet.

But there's a price to be paid for a low profile in modern politics.
You have to endure constant speculation that your job is about to be reshuffled out of existence.

And - possibly worse - you are mistaken for the creator of Dame Edna Everage.

The Sunday Telegraph has been asking the people of Manchester whether they can identify members of Gordon Brown's cabinet.

Mr Murphy was one of seven Cabinet Ministers recognised by none of the voters questioned.

According to the Telegraph: "The nearest anyone came to identifying Mr Murphy was when Charlie Colwell, 49, a bank worker, suggested: "He has something of the Barry Humphries about him."

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Do as I say......

Gordon Brown will doubtless appreciate today's professions of loyalty from his Welsh flock.

Don Touhig and Chris Bryant are among twenty backbenchers who've signed a letter to their colleagues urging them to stand up and be counted as loyal supporters of the Prime Minister.

Letter-writing is something of a habit for Mr Bryant at this time of year. His last letter was accompanied by a number of resignations from junior members of the Government, among them Mark Tami and Ian Lucas.

Two years on from the coup against Tony Blair, Mr Tami is now one of those in charge of enforcing party discipline and loyalty and Mr Lucas offers his own advice to Government Whips:

"I would hope the individuals trying to create friction will be spoken to very firmly and that is certainly what I will be saying to colleagues."

Prezza the Taff

John Prescott's pride in his background appears to be a little ambivalent.

“I’m constantly going back to my Welsh roots," the Prestatyn-born former deputy PM told the Western Mail in June. "I came from mining stock and had family in the Wrexham and Ruabon areas. It’s always good to return to Wales – though I wasn’t too happy about getting an egg chucked at me during the 2001 election and I clipped the guy."

Sky News political editor Adam Boulton reveals a slightly different patriotism in his memoirs, recalling Prezza's reluctance to appear on Sky after the Rumble in Rhyl during the 2001 election campaign:

"I had got on well with both Prescott and his wife and missed his amusing contributions to our programme: Prescott swearing loudly and repeatedly during a taped interview because he was being put off by 'that f***ing Taff speaking f***taff'."

The "f***ing Taff" in question was Denzil Davies, a former Treasury Minister and MP for Llanelli.

Given the North Wales police investigation into Tony Blair's reported comments about the "f***ing Welsh", perhaps this is another one for Brunstrom's Bobbies?

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Stop Lembit?

Lembit Opik could have been forgiven for falling off his Segway when he read The Times this morning.

The paper reports that leading Lib Dems are plotting to stop him becoming President Opik in the battle for the senior party post.

Mr Clegg is staying neutral - he knows that interfering in internal elections is counter-productive - but The Times says key figures around him (not to mention many Welsh party bigwigs) are likely to support the alternative candidate, Baroness (Ros) Scott.

The Scott campaign seems to have left her rival trailing. She's even got a Welsh version of her website and has been working overtime on the Lib Dem rubber chicken circuit, judging by this list of engagments.

30 Aug 08 Swansea supper with local members
30 Aug 08 Pembrokeshire BBQ
29 Aug 08 Rhondda Cynon Taf Meeting Local Members
28 Aug 08 Newport Garden Party
28 Aug 08 Brecon & Radnorshire Buffet Lunch
27 Aug 08 Bridgend Quiz night and social
27 Aug 08 Neath Port Talbot, tea with Activists
27 Aug 08 Neath Port Talbot Meeting Council Group
26 Jul 08 Wrexham Garden Party
10 Apr 08 Swansea Local Election Campaigning
9 Apr 08 Cardiff Local Election Campaigning
8 Apr 08 Cardiff Local Election Campaigning
24 Feb 08 Welsh Liberal Democrats Spring Conference in Llandudno

Her site includes this endorsement from Kirsty Williams, the only declared candidate (so far) in the race to lead the Welsh Liberal Democrats: "I'm for Ros because as a member from Wales sometimes London can seem an awfully long way away".

Nick Clegg may have problems with pensions arithmetic but you can't fault the Lib Dems on their geography.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Making it happen

Is anyone else wondering how the Liberal Democrats came up with their new "Make It Happen" slogan? No wonder Greg Dyke came out as a Lib Dem during the last general election.

Here in Bournemouth, I'm still trying to find out what "it" is and how we'll be able to tell when it's happened. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 15 September 2008

It's not that complicated

I've just completed my annual conference five minutes with the Liberal Democrat leader.

The best newsline was his emphatic support for Eleanor Burnham as the next leader of the party in Wales.

OK, I made that up in the absence of a world exclusive.

During the interview, he denied that his party's planned £20bn cuts in public spending would hit the Welsh Assembly Government's budget, although the £800m cut in the English road building programme would, I'd have thought, have some knock-on effect.

He also dismissed suggestions by one of his AMs, Peter Black, that the new economic policy is a little confusing - "it's not that complicated". (Peter's response to the question of what regional Assembly Members do is almost as long as Mike Ashley's diatribe on Newcastle United. Let's hope his inquisitor doesn't conclude that anyone who can spare that much time to respond in depth......)

Back to Nick Clegg. Disappointingly, both for me and those with ambitions in that direction, he refused to reveal his preferred choice as the next leader of the Welsh Lib Dems: "The worst thing the leader of a political party can do is start interfering with internal party elections. We are a very democratic party, a party owned, shaped, run by the members."

As is traditional at these times, I did ask the Lembit question. This is his response: "I think the public actually react very well to the fact that whatever you think of Lembit he's a human being he's a strong personality, he's not a colourless politician, he's got a varied life, he wears his heart on his sleeve and I actually think that people react very well to the fact that he stands out from the crowd."

All examples of Lembit standing out from the crowd gratefully received.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Lemsip Opik

This may have been the sponsorship deal waiting to happen. Lembit Opik croaked his way through a TV interview before fumbling in his pocket to produce a packet of Lemsip cold relief products.

The Montgomeryshire MP has lost his voice after only three fringe meetings and still has another 10 to go. A silent Opik may be a rare political event but it may not help his campaign to become president of the Liberal Democrats.

That said, I have spotted a few Lib Dem activists wandering around with stickers bearing his campaign slogan - Ipik Opik. (Get it?)

Hain "No" campaign

This will come as a blow to those conspiracy theorists in who always suspected that the summit of Peter Hain's political ambition was to end his career in the Welsh Assembly.

The former Welsh Secretary has ruled out what Glyn Davies describes as a "free transfer" to the Assembly. “It’s complete nonsense. It’s a silly season fabrication. I was on holiday and my office told me about this nonsense.”

It was always a ridiculous story on so many levels, as I may have pointd out once or twice. Mr Hain has previously ruled out a Labour/Plaid coalition only to see one happen but I think we can take today's statement as a pretty definitive "no".

The rest of us will just have to struggle on with the realisation that you can't believe everything you read in the newspapers - or indeed in the blogosphere.

The Place To Be

Exciting things happen during Liberal Democrat conferences. Admittedly, they often happen far away from the conference itself. Who can forget the Lib Dem conference of 1992, admittedly rather overshadowed by "Black Wednesday".

Then there was the Lib Dem gathering in Blackpool that coincided with the bombing of Afghanistan. I was back in London before Sunday night that year.

Gordon Brown's troubles have diverted attention away from Nick Clegg's first conference as Lib Dem leader but, for now, we're staying in Bournemouth.

For those pining for leadership battles, there is of course the future of the Welsh Lib Dems to be decided.

For the Politics Show We lined up the telly dream team of the only declared candidate - Kirsty Williams - and a past Welsh Lib Dem leader, Lembit Opik.

Both agreed, only for Kirsty to claim that she had a diary clash with a fringe event. A quick check discovered that the fringe event didn't start until an hour after the Politics Show.

Perhaps her withdrawal had something to do with this description of internal party tensions.

Luckily, the outgoing leader, Mike German, has agreed to step in - despite the fact he's appearing at the same fringe Kirsty cited as a diary clash.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Bad news: housing just got cheaper

For decades, Plaid Cymru have complained about the high cost of housing. Press releases would arrive almost daily bemoaning the fact that house prices were out of the reach of young people in many areas, with all that meant for the future of communities and the Welsh language.

Indeed, the party's leader has made increasing the supply of affordable housing a priority for Plaid in government. As Ieuan Wyn Jones put it last year: "It is as difficult for a first time buyer in Cardiff as it is in other parts of Wales."

Perhaps it's the experience of government but today, in what may be an historic U-turn, Plaid have issued a press release complaining that house prices are becoming more affordable.

Phil Edwards, who hopes to succeed Betty Williams as MP for Aberconwy [apologies for earlier bizarre error!], writes: "Because of Labour policies in London, people in Wales are suffering. Fuel costs have spiralled out of control, house prices are falling and everyone is feeling the pinch."

Perhaps Phil should have a word with the Welsh economic development Minister to sort out the party line.

Seconds out: Round 2

The English Health Minister who managed to wind up half the Welsh Assembly Government earlier this year has returned to his theme with comments that threaten to re-open a row between Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

Ben Bradshaw told a conference in London this morning that the NHS in England is delivering a better service despite spending less per patient than in Wales.

He said he was "fed up" being told that England suffered from health apartheid "because millionaires in Wales get their prescriptions free or Scotland plans to allow anyone who wants to park in busy hospital car parks for free.

"What about the fact that in England you can get your operation much more quickly, you don't have to wait for more than four hours in A and E any more and it is easy to see a GP when you want?

"These things matter more to the public. We are already delivering them in England and we have been doing so while spending less per head on health than in Scotland and Wales."

Mr Bradshaw's remarks - scripted, not off-the-cuff - were made during his keynote speech to a CBI conference on health.

Earlier this year, Mr Bradshaw sparked a row between the Assembly and UK Governments by saying the money spent on free parking would be better spent on improving patient care.

That prompted Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy to have a quiet word with Mr Bradshaw's boss, Alan Johnson - and was followed by a period of diplomacy on the Health Minister's part.

Welsh Assembly Government Ministers, who were re-assured Mr Bradshaw's views were not official UK Government policy, will doubtless be thrilled to learn of his latest outburst.

3PM update: WAG have released their statement"Devolved Government means that each administration is free to pursue its own priorities. Mr Bradshaw is entitled to his views. Free prescriptions and parking reforms have been widely welcomed by patients in Wales. We are putting the patient first and removing barriers to accessing healthcare. We see prescription and car parking charges as a tax on the sick. Investment in improving access to healthcare will improve the health and well-being of the people of Wales."

Bye Bye Betty

Betty Williams is standing down as MP for Aberconwy (currently Conwy) at the next election. An MP since 1997, she says that at the age of 64 she wants to re-balance her workload.

Lest anyone doubt her loyalty to Gordon Brown, Mrs Williams says in a statement: "There is no one I would trust more to lead us through difficult times. I have no respect for those, particularly former Ministers, who criticise without constructive proposals."

I presume that's a reference to Charles Clarke. Sadly, you won't be able to hear her expand on her reasons today as she is on "parliamentary business" in Paris.

Mrs Williams has been an assiduous constituency MP and in later years hasn't been afraid to vote against her Government on issues such as Iraq and nuclear weapons.

Despite her past role as a freelance media researcher, she was never one of those MPs banging on the studio door demanding airtime.

Indeed, I shall treasure some of the reasons she gave for her reluctance to go on air. "Mrs Williams doesn't do interviews before nine in the morning" was her office's response to one breakfast radio bid.

We didn't have much luck later in the day: "Mrs Williams is singing Elijah in the Abbey tonight".

Leadership and the art of the apostrophe

I spent yesterday at a leisure centre awaiting news of exciting political developments. Unfortuately, I made the mistake of diving into the pool at Putney when the action was elsewhere.

Fortunately, I've been kept up to date via an e-mailed statement from Kirsty Williams herself.

"The Liberal Democrat's [sic]," she wrote, "have had a great year of transformation with changes to key leadership posts across the Union."

It may not be entirely re-assuring that the leadership favourite is currently the Welsh Lib Dems' spokeswoman on education.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Lib Dem fails to get arrested

It's all go with the Lib Dems. I've just spent an hour with Lembit Opik as he tried, unsuccessfully, to get arrested for using a personal transporter on the streets of Westminster.

Lembit has become a big fan of the Segway, even using one in his less-than-flat constituency despite the fact they're currently not legal on public roads.

The Montgomeryshire MP had issued a "legalise Segways or send me to Strangeways" challenge to the Government - one it has chosen (so far) to ignore.

He says the immediate reaction of voters who see him riding a Segway is to smile at him, probably not a unique experience. Let's hope for his sake they're laughing with him, not at him.

I had a go on the Segway, touted as the carbon-free future of urban transport, myself. It was fun but I felt more vulnerable than I do on my folding bike. You can see my report here.

The Department for Transport says it doesn't meet basic safety standards - and it will need some tough convincing before it allows them legally on the roads.

Back among the Welsh Lib Dems, once Opik-led, the rank and file are getting very excited about the battle to succeed Mike German.

Kirsty Williams is due to declare tomorrow, so that's one fewer story for us from next week's party conference.

Another would-be leader is apparently steering clear of Bournemouth, although her fans have been swift to work on campaign material.




All that's missing is a snappy slogan......

Monday, 8 September 2008

Great Britain?

Here's the map of this year's Tour of Britain, currently underway. Or should that be the Tour of England and Scotland? Perhaps Wales, with nationalists in government, has declared UDI from Britain - you sort of feel that in their opposition days Plaid would have hit the F6 key on their keyboard, the one that produces press releases declaring "Slap in the Face to Wales".

You do wonder what Nicole Cooke makes of this year's route.

Manufacturing spin

Gordon Brown has taken his Cabinet to Birmingham today. It's the first time the British Cabinet has met outside Downing Street or Chequers since David Lloyd George took his top team to Inverness.

So is it a political stunt or a genuine attempt to show that the Government understands the problems faced by people in the real world?

By coincidence, the Government is launching a revised manufacturing strategy today.

Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, on his way to Birmingham today, said: “Wales has a long history when it comes to manufacturing industries and in recent years we’ve seen a significant transformation."

This "transformation" hasn't always been good news for Ministers. In 1997, around 215,000 people in Wales worked in manufacturing. The latest figures show that number is down to 154,000.

Since the Welsh Assembly came into being, in 1999, around a quarter of manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Curiously, these figures don't appear in Paul Murphy's press release, which although highlighting manufacturing prefers to focus on the increase in the number of overall jobs.

The Wales Office even forgot to highlight the positive side - the growth in manufacturing output in Wales comfortably outperformed the UK in the first quarter of 2008.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Hen-pecked Tories

The annual eruption of the political volcano that is Charles Clarke will occupy most bloggers today - and I'm doing a couple of radio turns on it - so let's talk chickens.

Yes, here's the hot news from David Cameron's shadow cabinet, brought to you by Cheryl Gillan:

"We now have six chickens in their own luxury chicken hut, with ramp for access into the meadow. They are Buff Orpington and Black Rock hybrid hens (grey, white and black), which are traditional, rare breeds.

"Our chickens have been protected from the possible wrath of those who might seek to turn them into a stew by giving them names. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, TV cook and food guru said, “You cannot eat anything you have given a name”."

Sadly, Cheryl doesn't reveal the names in her Bucks Advertiser and Examiner article so we'll just have to speculate wildly that they're called David, Stephen, Wyn, Nick, Brynle and Alun.

Funny names for hens, I grant you, but if it keeps them out of the oven......

I'd like to thank......

I've just had a pleasant surprise. A colleague contacted me to let me know that I've won "Best Media Blog" in the Welsh Blog Index awards. I suspect there's no prize but as an unofficial blogger without the platforms enjoyed by others I'm going to allow myself to feel smug for 90 seconds before treating myself to a caramel slice and a nice cup of tea.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

United Nations? (2)

The "significant" event came and went, without offering immediate knock-on effects for Wales.

Gordon Brown says he will press ahead to complete devolution to Northern Ireland during the next few days - removing a possible barrier to the merger of the territorial Cabinet roles. The PM said today's report into the IRA could lead to the devolution of policing and justice to Belfast.

The non-devolution of policing and justice has been widely seen as an obstacle to the merger of the territorial jobs in Mr Brown's Government.

Gordon Brown said: "In the next few days, I will use all my efforts, working with the parties in
Northern Ireland, to make sure that the devolution of policing and justice can go ahead and the final stages of the peace process will now be completed, to the better government of Northern Ireland and to the peace and prosperity of the people there."

First Minister Peter Robinson is rather more cautious about today's report - and his approach may yet influence the timing of what is possibly the longest-trailed reshuffle saga in history.

Auf Wiedersehen?

Tonight's bedside reading has arrived, in the form of the agenda for the Lib Dem conference.

There's a special slot for the new leader of the Scottish party, Tavish Scott, but no place on the platform for his Welsh equivalent, Mike German.

This will be Mr German's first and last UK autumn conference as leader of the Welsh Lib Dems but he's been squeezed off the agenda for his farewell tour.

Last year, his conference presence was confined to a fridge magnet (5op from the Lib Dem shop). This year, he is expected in Bournemouth to say more personal farewells during the first couple of days before departing for Welsh Assembly business in Africa.

Conference organisers deny any snub to Wales in excluding Mr German from the platform. They tend to rotate slots among their devolved leaders.

Expect his successor to be given a starring role (well, 20 minutes on a Sunday morning) at next year's conference. Eleanor Burnham has probably pencilled it in her diary already.

United Nations?

Those bloggers who tend to believe everything in the newspapers - and there are many - have been curiously slow to react to this column by the usually well-informed Rachel Sylvester in The Times yesterday.

She wrote: "A limited reshuffle - focused on merging the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland jobs into a single constitutional secretary role - had been pencilled into the No 10 diary for this week."

A "significant" announcement is expected in Northern Ireland this afternoon. Some think this will go beyond the transformation of the IRA to the devolution of justice and policing to Belfast and involve the merging of the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offices.

If it's happening this week, the Wales Office remains in the dark - admittedly not in itself evidence that it isn't happening.

The Lib Dems and frivolity

The Liberal Democrats have had a go at the BBC for spending millions of pounds on travel during the last year. It's the lead story in London's free morning newspaper.

The BBC makes the point that broadcasting from major news events across the world does involve the occasional need for travel outside the studio.

I'm off this morning (on foot) to attend a Lib Dem briefing on the party's conference, which takes place later this month. Perhaps we could pacify the Lib Dems by not bothering to cover their conference, saving the licence-payer the cost of our (standard class) rail fares to Bournemouth.

As the Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker says: "Licence fee-payers have a right to assume their money is not being splashed around frivolously."

Monday, 1 September 2008

The price of democracy

September is here, the silly season is over and most politicians - and political journalists - are back at work.

Well, something like that. The end of August shouldn't deter journalists from leadership speculation, with major contests brewing in Washington, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

The leader of the latter, Mike German, will stand down on October 11 when the campaign to succeed him will officially get under way. (October 11 is also the day one of Wales's star hacks gets married - the lengths some people go to to avoid a Lib Dem conference!).

The Lib Dems still have to decide some of the rules for the leadership contest and it's likely Mr German will stay in post until the new leader takes over in late November or early December.

One of the rules concerns how much candidates can spend on their campaign. The current limit is a modest £250. Don't spend it all at once, guys......

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Seeing the light

I have tended to be a little sceptical about lists of popular blogs, although I now realise, in the light of Iain Dale's list of the top 30 media blogs, what a brilliant and accurate barometer of quality writing they are.

As an independent blog without an official BBC platform, I was rather surprised to find myself in the top 10 alongside Nick Robinson and that bloke who analyses Westminster from Derbyshire.

Many thanks to those of you who voted (unsolicited) for me. It's good to know there's someone out there.

UPDATE: Iain Dales has also released a similar survey of the top 40 blogs in the crowded Welsh blogosphere. Congratulations to Peter Black, who won gold, with Glyn Davies silver and Ordovicius bronze.

Miss Wagstaff presents came fourth, ahead of me. It's interesting how "amateur" blogs seem to make more of an impact than those written by professional hacks. Iain Dale says 18 of the top 40 are nationalist blogs - I'm not sure if he includes mine in that total.....

Westminster is still deserted and my regular desk has been turned into a temporary TV studio but I'd better start blogging again soon if I'm to retain my top five position next year.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Back of the net!

It's the traditional curtain-raiser to the football season. Yes, the mini-tournament featuring politicians from the UK's Parliaments and Assemblies has just taken place.

Wrexham MP Ian Lucas may be as sick as a parrot after registering two own goals while turning out for a Welsh Assembly XI.

Full details are here although my man with the lip microphone and sheepskin coat tells me the second own goal was against Scotland.

The transfer window doesn't close until August 31 - there's still time for Fergie, Big Phil and the others to launch a bid for the Wrexham dynamo.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Surround sound AMs

Six days away from the office. What did I miss? A total of 457 e-mails (it would be more but the BBC has a great spam filter). Gordon Brown is still on holiday - and still Prime Minister, despite the threat posed by various Davids.

Politicians' expenses are still in the news, although this time it's Welsh Assembly Members who are making the news through a freedom of information request from the BBC.

Eight AMs claimed the maximum possible amount of £12,500 for second home expenses in the last financial year.

One of the highest claimants, Lib Dem Leader Mike German has his main home just seventeen miles from Cardiff Bay. We all know how tricky the M4 can be of a morning.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then you're probably an AM. Besides rent and mortgage interest payments, the claims include a £2,000 sofa for Labour's Lesley Griffiths and £1,000 for a TV surround sound system for Tory Nick Ramsey. He also spent £2,000 on two beds.

No news yet on why an AM needs more than one taxpayer-funded bed, but Nick's sounds like the place to be next time there's a big match on.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Crisis? What crisis?

Leadership crisis or not, I'm off to the seaside. I hope to be back on August 11. Hi di Hi!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Lib Dems counting the pennies

You wouldn't think the Welsh Liberal Democrats were so awash with cash that filing their accounts would be a difficult task.

You'd be wrong - the party is in trouble with the electoral commission for failing to meet its deadline.

The Welsh Lib Dems are now facing a possible fine from the commission, the size of which could depend on how late the accounts are when finally submitted. They were due in May.

The commission said: "Final statements of accounts have yet to be received from the Welsh Liberal Democrats accounting unit. The penalty it faces will depend on how late they are".

Its head in Wales, Kay Jenkins, said: "The regulatory framework put in place by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act is designed to ensure the integrity of our democratic system and is quite clear on the time-frame that must be adhered to. That is why we are fining parties who did not meet the deadline for submitting their accounts."

Commission chief executive Peter Wardle agreed verbatim: "The regulatory framework put in place by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act is designed to ensure the integrity of our democratic system and is quite clear on the time-frame that must be adhered to. That is why we are fining parties who did not meet the deadline for submitting their accounts."

Perhaps when the Welsh Lib Dems have filed their audited accounts they can ask the commission why it needs two people to deliver identical statements.

The Lib Dems say: "We acknowledge that when the accounts were submitted they had not been audited and certified. This process is now taking place. We do not take this fine lightly and are undertaking a thorough review of our present procedures to ensure audited accounts will always be submitted on time in the future"

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Trying to be helpful

Justice Minister David Hanson may be a Blairite but as far as I know he's still loyal to Tony Blair's successor in Downing Street.

So I guess his reaction to last week's by-election disaster - "It's very disappointing but Gordon Brown has got to stay" - shouldn't be taken out of context by mischievous hacks.

Harriet Harman, holding the fort while the PM's away, offered her support with a positive: "I can recognise that I don't think the British people have seen the best of him yet as prime minister."

Perhaps Labour's slogan for their autumn conference in Manchester should be "the best is yet to come"?

Zombies, Margaret Beckett and open doors

It's a story that arrives regularly with the onset of summer: the proposed merger of Whitehall's territorial departments. It fills newspapers and blogs as the silly season approaches and journalists run out of plots or other reshuffle rumours to report.

I first wrote about this at least seven years ago and one day, perhaps soon, it may well come true. The Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offices may be combined under a "Secretary of State for the Nations".

A red-top Sunday newspaper reported a fortnight ago that Paul Murphy and the Wales Office were not long for this world. The Times wrote about it last Thursday - and predicted a Margaret Beckett comeback here. Wales on Sunday followed up the story on Sunday.

It set the scene for a slightly surreal debate on the Richard Evans show yesterday. A Labour MP argued passionately for the Welsh job to be scrapped; Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader argued equally vehemently for the job to survive.

Paul Flynn says Paul Murphy has nothing to do in a "zombie ministry".

"It’s a mass delusion. The Wales Office and Scotland Office have virtually died. There is an occasional flicker of life but there is no hope that they will ever recover from their deep comas.
Yet politicians happily play the game of the living dead and cling on to the offices of Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland.

"There is a danger that these posts of Secretaries of State will become as meaningless as the Warden of the Cinque Ports. Grand titles, nice uniform but everyone will have forgotten what job they are supposed to be doing."

Elfyn Llwyd argued that scrapping the post now would "slow down the democratic process" - not a view shared by his colleague Adam Price.

Mr Llwyd praised Paul Murphy's work in the job - "his door is always open". Cue this response from Paul Flynn: "Understandable. The poor chap hopes someone will drop in for a chat because he has nothing to do."

Perhaps someone should design a uniform for Mr Murphy before it's too late. As a papal knight, he could always save the taxpayer some cash by borrowing his uniform from that role while carrying out his Welsh duties.

Monday, 28 July 2008

A corner of a "foreign" field......


It must be the only place on earth where Charles and Diana's wedding anniversary is still celebrated.

On the last Friday of July, on every year since 1981, Bushy Park in south-west London fills up with more than 500 runners taking part in what is known as the Wedding Day 7k.

The event is presided over by the sort of priest you won't find in Crockford's Clerical Directory.

He runs by the name of "Father Onn" (there's a clue in there somewhere) and mixes a dog collar with running shorts, a panama hat, striped socks and sandals.

Father Onn (left) would be played in a film by Simon Callow although further investigation reveals that he is in fact Mark Thomas, who hails from Bridgend but is now a leading light in one of London's biggest running clubs.

The Wedding Day 7k may also be the only race outside Wales where a Welsh lovespoon is offered as a prize - to the first couple across the line.
Sadly, there's no prize for weariest middle-aged, sleep-deprived hack recovering from by-election the night before but apparently it's the taking part that counts.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Changing Times

When I was a lad, the Conservatives were in favour of smaller government, lower taxes and reduced public spending.

Things have changed, although earlier this month, the former Welsh Office Minister Lord Roberts suggested to BBC Wales that a future Conservative government should cut spending, although his comments may have been lost during my futile journey to discover Tory policy on devolution.

Today, Welsh Tory leader Nick Bourne has suggested the formula which effectively decides the level of much public spending in Wales should be replaced with "some updated needs-based top up grant". That would presumably increase public spending in Wales, although he doesn't say whether that would be financed by a cut in spending in Scotland or England.

For all the fuss about the formula in Wales, the strongest pressure for a review comes from England, which perhaps should worry politicians west of Offa's Dyke. Check out how the Northern Echo reported an inquiry into the issue for one English perspective. The debate's still raging on the (London) Evening Standard website.

Lord Roberts will have been chuffed to learn that David Cameron has promised to publish his review of devolution policy when he receives the final report (the interim version was submitted recently).

It's slightly confusing to simple hacks like me why the Tories are reviewing their policy on devolution when their MPs have been promised a free vote on the conclusion.

Never mind, let's just hope Mr Cameron didn't leave his copy of the Roberts review on the back of his bike.

The morning after the night before

Another crushing by-election defeat, another government response that includes warm phrases such as "listening and learning" and re-assurances about feeling your pain.

Governments often lose by-elections but last night was a surprise to many of the many Labour MPs - and the media - who had spent time in Glasgow recently.

Gordon Brown tells us he is "getting on with the job" - it's become a familiar refrain after by-election disasters. The post-poll routine has almost become part of the British constitution. There's inevitable speculation about the Prime Minister's future, although so far the rolling news channels have failed to persuade critics other than usual suspects Lord Desai and Graham Stringer to take to the airwaves.

Bob Marshall-Andrews dismissed "listening and learning" as "platitudinous nonsense" but warned that many of the events worrying voters are only under the marginal control of government.

Mr Stringer suggested (as he usually does after by-election defeats) that Cabinet Ministers should visit Mr Brown and tell him the time's up, a Labour equivalent of the Tories' men in grey suits.

Speaking of Tories, I've (finally) been reading Gyles Brandreth's Breaking the Code, an entertaining inside account of the dying days of an accident-prone government led by an unpopular Prime Minister.

We all know how that one finished but if it's any consolation John Major's Conservatives suffered by-election swings of more than 30 per cent.

You could be forgiven for thinking politicians had shelved their holiday plans. Parliament's Welsh affairs committee, as I reported on Wednesday, have been keeping me and the rest of the Welsh media busy during the recess. (For which, many thanks.).

Some members of the committee, which often gives the impression that publicity is an unwanted occupational hazard, appear surprised by the fuss their comments have caused.

The Welsh media are often accused of an obsession with constitutional change. I dare say the minutiae of the legislative process will shift few votes during the next general election, but if it keeps a few political anoraks off the streets I will not have toiled in vain.

Peter Black's comments about the committee's "world tour" may not go down well with its Liberal Democrat member although not all MPs on the Welsh affairs committee think their inquiry into globalisation has been a terribly productive use of their time.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

MPs swamped

As a parliamentary correspondent, I'm often asked: "David, what do Welsh MPs do now devolution has reduced their role?"

The answer involves legislation - and a committee of Welsh backbenchers is rather worried there's too much of it.

A memo from the Welsh affairs select committee complains about the political system in both Wales and Westminster being "swamped" with legislative requests from the National Assembly for Wales.

It effectively suggests the Assembly should concentrate on quality rather than quantity when it comes to legislation.

The MPs say: "We urge the Assembly and the Wales Office to find ways of giving a proper focus to legislative work, aiming at producing a reasonable number of high-quality Orders {Legislative Orders in Council or LCOs} each year rather than allowing volume to swamp the system here and in the Assembly as seems to be happening at the moment.

"We are convinced that a concentration on quality will enhance the credibility and standing of the LCO process."

MPs on the committee (modestly) say their "constructive contribution" has "helped to significantly improve the quality of those LCOs that have come forward for formal approval to date."

"If the level of LCOs coming forward from the Assembly settles down at something
of the order of the four or five per year originally envisaged, this will enhance scrutiny,
facilitate better planning and avoid the danger that issues over capacity could become
an obstacle to effective working."

Some legislation takes longer to scrutinise than others. Gordon Brown has, it has been widely reported, created 2,823 new laws during his first year in office (the sort of total that will impress those who see law-making as a political virility symbol).

The MPs say there were problems of misunderstandings about scope and intention with some LCOs but these have been overcome with goodwill on both sides.

They raise questions about clarity and say a clause should be added to each LCO making it legally clear "that the power is intended to provide the power that has been
requested and outlined by the Assembly".

An idea unlikely to find favour with their colleagues in Cardiff Bay.

Perhaps the pressure of work explains why the committee has yet to publish the results of its inquiry into globalisation 18 months after it began.