Wednesday, 29 July 2009

You Tube if you want to

Gordon Brown's appearances on YouTube have not always shown the Prime Minister at ease with the world.

But that hasn't put him off, although he appears to have hired a new presenter/reporter. (Don't give up the day job, Peter)

There was something about the last part of the tape that was strangely familiar.

Then I realised it was an answer the PM gave me during our brief "interview" after the Cabinet awayday, filmed over my shoulder by someone from No 10.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


The MPs have left Westminster, some for the beaches, others for Closer magazine.

For the hacks left behind, there is the odd crumb of a story - Esther Rantzen's political career is taking off again today - and a chance to muse on the issues of the day.

You may think that it's summer and life is too short to discuss the Barnett Formula, but before the Cabinet awayday to Cardiff is forgotten I thought I'd share the Prime Minister's views on the way the devolved institutions are funded.

This is Gordon Brown's take on the formula in the light of recent reports suggesting it is too generous to Scotland but short-changes Wales:

"The principle of spending allocation in the UK is that we allocate resources according to need. The Barnett formula has been the traditional means that we do it. If any changes are needed in the Barnett formula as a result of these reviews, we'll look at this. But I think Rhodri Morgan has said himself that spending in Wales by the Assembly has doubled over the last few years.

"And we've made it possible for wales to have better health pieces, better schools and better spending on the infrastructures of transport and policeing on which we depend, and so we will continue to ensure that spending is allocated fairly according to need."

That was Mr Brown's answer to the second question in a two-question "interview" he gave at the end of the awayday. His definition of "need" would be challenged by many critics of a population-based formula.

So what will change? He doesn't appear in a hurry to rush to his constituents to explain why they should get less public spending to help the under-funded Welsh.

The Conservatives, who hope to take power within a year, have occasionally made noises about changing the formula but despite the imminence of a general election have yet to spell out what they would do in this area, as in so many others.

At this rate, the formula will outlive the sprightly Lord Barnett himself.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Hey Big Spender

As if a billion pounds for a new electric rail line were not enough, Gordon Brown has also promised to sponsor my friends and colleagues Jamie Owen and Louise Elliott in their Cardiff half marathon run.

They've promised to let me know if the Prime Minister doesn't cough up the cash.


Gordon Brown let the train take the strain this morning as his Cabinet arrived in south Wales for their awayday.

The big announcement, trailed yesterday, is the go-ahead for electrification of the rail line between London and Swansea.

Everyone sees it as good news, although the Tories have questioned the cost - would they scrap the plan if they win power?

Plaid Cymru have been trying very hard - perhaps two hard - to persuade us that it was their Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who persuaded the UK Government to cough up the cash.

Mr Jones was at Cardiff Central for the arrival of the prime ministerial express, bearing UK Transport Secretary Lord Adonis.

The two enjoy a good working relationship and were soon deep in conversation on platform three. They'd left their anoraks at home but there was an air of trainspotters' convention about the meeting.

Any political trainspotters hanging around would have spotted Lord Mandelson and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, getting off the train accompanied by various officials and spin doctors.

Gordon Brown left his carriage accompanied by Rhodri Morgan, a surprise to those of us who assumed the First Minister was based in Cardiff.

Apparently Mr Morgan was driven to Newport station this morning so he could have a chat with the PM on the train during the 17-minute journey to Cardiff.

Nothing to do with wanting to be captured on camera arriving alongside the PM.

I was on my best behaviour so resisted the temptationt to shout out: "Have you come far, First Minister?"

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The age of the train?

Back in those heady punk rock days of 1977, when the Barnett formula was just a glint in a Treasury Minister's eye, you could travel from Cardiff to Paddington by rail in one hour 45 minutes.

The same journey will take me slightly more than two hours later today. Even when new trains arrive in 2015, it's estimated the journey will still be slightly longer than more than thirty years ago.

But cheer up. The Guardian reports today, accurately as I understand it, that the Cardiff to London rail line will be electrified.

The paper focuses on the environmental benefits of the project although it also suggests quicker and more reliable services could result.

The downside is that the work could take place over 10 years and the Severn Tunnel, in particular, may present an engineering challenge. Weekend travellers should perhaps prepare for the scenic route option for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

School's out!

Nearly there. Just a few more hours until MPs depart for 82 days of fact-finding, bonding with their constituents and the odd well-deserved holiday.

Are they demob-happy or simply relieved to reach the end of a pretty gruesome term for MPs? Gordon Brown has described the expenses affair as the most serious scandal to affect Parliament for more than two centuries. (Worse than Lloyd George selling peerages?)

That hasn't stopped MPs having a close look at media expenses. Ann Clwyd, whose one expenses claims are beyond reproach, asked in the Commons yesterday: "Is it not a fact that the BBC would have more money to improve coverage and content if it spent less public money on excessive salaries and excessive expenses?"

I nearly fell into my moat when I heard that question. My own expenses for July total so far £3.20, and I can't claim the money back until I reach the minimum claim of £20. Don't worry, I'll cope.

The Prime Minister appeared more relaxed than you might expect as he mingled among his guests in the Downing Street garden last night. You might think it's quite decent of him to invite the hacks in given the sort of press he's endured during the last year.

The No 10 garden is surprisingly large and now features not only a playhouse but also a large trampoline, probably for the Brown offspring, although I like the idea of the PM chilling out by bouncing up and down outside the Cabinet room. It may explain his relaxed state.

If he bounced high enough he could have spotted a protester from North Wales playing Patagonian Welsh music through a loudspeaker on top of his estate car during a tour of Whitehall.

The idea was to protest at the recent refusal to allow Patagonian Welsh learners to visit the UK. The music didn't exactly get MPs dancing in the aisles but they may have got the point.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Democratic renewal

Gordon Brown may have become Prime Minister without the hassle of an election, but that bastion of democracy, the House of Lords is a bit fussy about these democratic niceties.

So congratulations to Lord Aberdare, the newest member of the upper House. One of the ironies of the half-reformed House of Lords is that the only elected members are the owners of hereditary titles.

Lord Aberdare, or Alastair John Lyndhurst Bruce as he's doubtless known to his mates in the Cynon Valley Historical Society, takes the seat left vacant by the death crossbench hereditary peer Viscount Bledisloe.

Lord Aberdare is the son of the 4th Baron, a former Conservative Minister who was an ace real tennis player and former chairman of the Football Trust.

The newly-elected peer is a former trustee of the National Botanic Garden of Wales and a fellow of Cardiff University.

Party animals

Peter Hain's Wales Office summer party in Whitehall last night had a distinctly retro feel to it.

Nye Bevan's mini-statue had been restored to its position alongside the ANC Mandela poster above the mantelpiece after 15 months in exile from government.

The guest list was a reminder of those who had worked with the Neath MP during his time at Gwydyr House, in Northern Ireland and on his Labour deputy leadership campaign. One former spin doctor described it as "a gathering of the living dead".

There was the odd celebrity or two at what was a thoroughly enjoyable gathering. As someone who played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace process, Peter Hain is also one of the few people capable of bringing Lembit Opik and Sian Lloyd together in the same room even if the de-commissioning process there has somne way to go.

There was even a Manic Street Preacher - of the musical (James Dean Bradfield) rather than the Lord Roberts of Llandudno kind.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan denied she was measuring up for curtains ahead of the general election.

Her superstition about victory extends to declining all offers to spell out what she would do in the Wales Office. I forgot to ask whether she'd replace Nye Bevan with a likeness of Margaret Thatcher, although I suspect the answer would be "wait and see" (it usually is).

Taxpayers will be relieved to discover that the menu reflected the austerity of the times rather than the apparent approach of those International Business Wales civil servants who turn left on planes at our expense.

Catering was in-house, provided by civil servants. After 12 years of canape culture under New Labour, guests were offered a choice between crisps and peanuts.

John Redwood, one of Peter Hain's more frugal predecessors, would have been proud.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Banking on the MoD?

The Ministry of Defence has done its best to do what the Wales Office couldn't do - and answer questions about the prospects for the defence training academy at St Athan.

Apparently the banking situation and "the evolving situation in Afghanistan" are responsible for delays in the planning stages of the project.

The scheme is expected to go before an MoD review board for approval next February, almost a year later than scheduled.

In the light of Afghanistan, the programme is being adjusted to ensure British troops receive "relevant" training.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Despite some delays to the planning stages of the DTR project, there is currently no change to the end date and final contracts remain scheduled to be signed in the summer of 2010."

Perhaps the key word there is "scheduled". Voters will notice the proximity of "the summer of 2010" to the next general election. Cheryl Gillan may find herself answering rather than asking questions before the academy is built.

How To Avoid Answering the Question

Cheryl Gillan took time off from wittering during Welsh Questions to ask a specific question about the proposed defence training academy at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The project, to centralise services training, has seen several delays since it was first announced and there are growing questions over its future.

This was Cheryl Gillan's question to the Wales Office Minister Wayne David: "The defence training project at St Athan would bring huge opportunities to Wales.

"Can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Defence is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Defence and that the pre-contract agreement letter will be issued to the preferred bidder this week, on time, on the 17th of July, or will this be delayed by the Government?"

Wayne David's reply: "Can I say that the honourable lady is absolutely correct in stressing the importance of this investment to Wales.

"It will be the largest single investment in the Welsh economy that there's ever been and the defence technical college will be of tremendous benefit not only to the Welsh economy but obviously to the armed forces of the United Kingdon.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State fully recognises the importance of this. he's had discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and they're going forward together and he can be absolutely assured that we recognise the importance of this project for Wales as a whole."

Warm words, but not exactly an answer to the question asked.

Wittering for Wales

Can there be a better post-holiday pre-recess treat than Welsh Questions in the House of Commons?

Peter Hain and his deputy Wayne David fielded MPs' questions for the last time today before MPs disappear for their long summer recess.

Today was John Bercow's first Welsh Questions in the chair and the new Speaker wasted little time before making his mark.

He demanded shorter questions and pithy replies of MPs and Ministers.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan was a prime target, finding herself accused of "wittering".

Mr Bercow told MPs: "There is a practice growing up of the opposition front bench asking a question and then wittering away from a sedentary position - it's not acceptable and I don't want it to happen again."

It didn't, although the Speaker did have to tell MPs to tone down the noise at one point, something due rather more to anticipation of Prime Minister's Question Time than excitement at Welsh Questions.

And there was still time for Peter Hain to quip of Cheryl Gillan: "At least she wasn't twittering in the House." These silver surfers yield to no-one in their ability to get down with da kidz online.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

No more blogging for a week or two

Blogging may be a little lighter than usual during the next 10 days as I'm taking a short seaside break.

Radio Wales listeners should not adjust their set if they do not hear my voice at 6.35am.

On past form, some major political event will happen in my absence although hopefully my employers will have a Cessna standing by should my immediate return from Bognor Regis be required.

I will of course interrupt my family holiday to bring you the latest news should there be an unexpected triumph in the knobbly knees competition.

Hi di Hi!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Happy Anniversary

We love anniversaries in journalism. It's 40 years today since the Prince of Wales was invested, if that's the right phrase.

It's two years this week since Labour and Plaid Cymru coalesced in Cardiff Bay. It's two - very long years - since Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair.

It's approaching the first anniversary of the last Welsh Conservative news conference at Westminster (or maybe it just feels like that).

It's 10 years today since power was devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff.

That means it's also the 10th anniversary of the Wales Office, where Peter Hain - Secretary of State for more than half that time - says they are busier than ever before.

Ten years ago, on what we could call D-Day, Mr Hain was a junior Welsh Office Minister. One day he was making key decisions on Welsh schools, the next he was metaphorically twiddling his thumbs as the education brief, along with others, was transferred along the M4.

The artist Mumph drew a cartoon of Mr Hain and a fellow junior Minister playing battleships in the power-free zone that their department became. It may have been a slight exaggeration, although those present at the time recall a surreal post-devolution atmosphere before Welsh Ministers found a new role at Westminster.

In those days, if anyone mentioned LCOs you might confuse it with a breakfast cereal or supermarket. These days they are the stuff of casual conversation in pubs up and down the land. Well, perhaps not.

The 10th wedding anniversary is normally marked by presents of aluminium or tin. I'll leave you to come up with suitable gifts for the Wales Office on its big day.