Thursday, 10 July 2008

The bardic steamroller's horns

If the opinion polls are right, within two years David Cameron will enter Downing Street as Prime Minister.

So, I can hear you all asking, what does this mean for constitutional reform in Wales?

No? Well, I thought I'd ask anyway for a report for tonight's Dragon's Eye.

One of the first decisions a Tory Secretary of State for Wales might have to take is whether to agree to an Assembly request for a referendum to give the Welsh Assembly full law-making powers.

I asked Cheryl Gillan what she'd do if faced with that decision as Secretary of State, (if David Cameron gives her the job):

"I'm not going to speculate. We have got 2 years to run of a Labour government least. We have a general election that I've said that I hope we would win but I don't know we're going to win. At this stage it would be quite wrong of me to speculate on future policy in two or three or four years time.

"It's a free vote and as shadow Secretary of State for Wales at this stage I think it would be quite wrong of me to prejudge that situation. I'm not sitting on the fence, I'm waiting to see when a referendum is called."

So why the need for a free vote? "There is a difference of opinion amongst Assembly Members, there is a difference of opinion amongst party members, in the Labour Party, even in Plaid I think to a certain extend and the Liberal Democrats.

"I am being very honest and open about it and saying in my party we will allow people to have a free vote if there is a referendum."

A free vote opens the possibility of Ministers campaigning on both sides of the argument, as Labour Ministers did in the 1975 European referendum. If there is a free vote, what is the point of the review of devolution policy David Cameron has commissioned from Lord Roberts of Conwy?

Lord (Wyn) Roberts (78 today - penblwydd hapus) has recently completed his interim report, which goes into some detail on the background to devolution in Wales.

He won't tell me what's in it - the full report should be submitted this summer - but he thinks the future lies in a "more co-operative spirit" between Wales and Westminster.

How, I asked, does he get that co-operative spirit within a party where, to generalise, AMs want full law-making parties and MPs would prefer the Assembly didn't exist?

"It is something of a dilemma and I'm on the horns of it just at the moment" said the man known during his ministerial days as the Bardic Steamroller.

* You may wonder - you may not - why none of the Welsh Conservative MPs features in my report. All were unavailable - one's just had a baby, another's in Brussels and the other believes his constituents are more vexed about rising living costs than the Roberts review. He may be right.

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