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......