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.


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'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?


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


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.