Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Who cares?

I could spend the rest of the week trying to find out which bits of Gordon Brown's speech apply to Wales, which are England only, and which have already been announced and probably won't happen anyway.

Life is too short so I'll just look at one area for the moment - free personal care. This is what Gordon Brown said: "And so we will say in Labour's manifesto that social care for all is not a distant dream, that to provide security for pensioners for generations to come - we will bring together the National Health Service and local care provision into a new National Care Service."

"And we can start straight away......and so for those with the highest needs we will now offer in their own homes free personal care."

Synidau has looked into how this might work in some detail.

Good news? That may depend on where you live. Peter Hain told Wales Today viewers that the National Care Service would be UK-wide. So that means, one day, more cash to do similar things in Wales.

What about the PM's promise to "start straight away?" This promise will apparently be paid for in part by cutting lower-priority areas of the existing (English) Department of Health budget. So if the Assembly Government hopes for a swift windfall from the plan, Ministers in Cardiff shouldn't hold their breath.

And the "National Care Service" itself depends on Labour winning the next election, which, shall we say, does not exactly look like a racing cert.

Not a dossier

"It is not a dossier." At least that's what Chris Bryant told me when I asked about his publication today of a document on the Tories and Wales.

The said document predicts that the Conservatives would slash around £2.5bn off public spending in Wales.

The Tories say that's news to them, as they appear reluctant to confirm any concrete proposals.

Labour come up with the £2.5bn figure by assuming the Conservatives would cut 10 per cent of the £25.3bn the Treasury says is spent in Wales each year.

The non-dossier predicts that if the Tories win the general election, the minimum wage would be frozen and the winter fuel payment and tax credits would be abolished.

Scare-mongering, say the Conservatives although they won't say how much they would spend in Wales if they won the election.

Struggling to get detailed answers on the non-dossier I switched to the philosophical question of the week: Is Chris Bryant a mushy peas or guacamole man?

"It depends whether I'm having fish and chips or potato wedges," explained the Rhondda MP.
"But I am the Minister for Latin America".

The "new Labour for Britain" logo on the back page of his non-dossier puts him firmly in the guacamole camp.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Another twit out there

I've been wondering whether to join Twitter or not. Apparently, 40 per cent of the messages posted on the site are pointless drivel, so I should be able to help drive it towards parity.

I'm not yet convinced there's a huge market out there for regular reports on the minutiae of my life (6.30am David is on Radio Wales/changing his son's nappy/going for a run) but I'm prepared to risk even greater anonymity.

Once I get posting, I'll be on, if I can get the hang of tweeting.

Guacamole days

We used to use labels such as left-wing or right-wing as political short-hand. Then there was New Labour and Old Labour. These sophisticated days distinctions are more subtle - guacamole versus mushy peas.

Of the candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan, Huw Lewis tells us he's "a little bit more of a tapas man". We were hoping to ask Carwyn Jones this most profound of questions but alas he was not available for interview.

You can find more here.

And no, I won't be claiming the chips on expenses.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Staying neutral

Wherever two or three Welsh Labour politicians are gathered in the hotel bars or on the conference fringe, the talk turns to.....LCOs and the Barnett Formula.

Well, possibly. At Welsh Night, two of the would-be candidates to succeed Rhodri Morgan pressed the flesh with fervour as their supporters span lines to passing hacks.

Carwyn Jones exchanged warm greetings with Gordon Brown (who hasn't a vote) while filmed by another AM from the Jones camp.

Others are trying to stay out of the fray. Peter Hain told me on The Politics Show Wales: "I'm not backing anybody. As secretary of state for Wales I am staying entirely neutral on this, as you'd expect."

Ditto, his deputy Wayne David. There's no law that says Ministers have to stay neutral - and indeed they didn't in the past, Mr Hain backing Ron Davies and Alun Michael against Rhodri Morgan. Perhaps it's the bruises of past battles that explain why studied neutrality is the stance of choice this time.

Mr Hain's neutrality didn't stop him questioning the sustainability of the Welsh Assembly Government's policy of free hospital parking.

Just as well, perhaps, that Health Minister and potential candidate Edwina Hart doesn't appear to have made it to the Sussex coast.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Another PR triumph

Who said Labour were obsessed with spin and image? Tonight, the party banned television cameras from a Welsh Night reception here in Brighton.

So viewers won't get to see Gordon Brown's tribute to the retiring Rhodri Morgan, or hear his campaigning message delivered to delegates.

The decision to ban the cameras incensed AMs, MPs and Ministers present at the bash, never mind those of us who depend on pictures to tell news stories.

Gordon Brown is the first Labour leader to ban cameras from the event. It's not as if he turned up, told a few blue jokes and drank 17 cans of Tennant's Extra before being grilled on his latest NHS prescription.

So why the ban? He warned delegates "we are up against the media" which may explain the camera shyness.

Otherwise, he was relaxed, fluent and cheerful, doing a passable impression of a human being. What a shame you won't get to see that for yourselves.

Greetings from Brighton

Another Sunday by the seaside. The circus has moved on, from Bournemouth to Brighton, for another of those crucial make-or-break, to borrow a cliche or two, political conferences.

This time the talk is of leadership, of this being possibly the last conference for someone who's been at the top for years.

But enough about Gordon Brown, apparently this could be Rhodri Morgan's farewell conference too.

As late as this morning, colleagues were in the dark about Mr Morgan's retirement plans. He had apparently considered making his announcement to delegates here but then thought an English gathering might not be the best venue.

It has been just like old times here in Brighton. Peter Hain has been impossible to avoid on air or in print.

He found time to offer advice via the Sunday Times to the Prime Minister: "He should have a chance to allow himself to sleep more and take a break a bit more."

When you get that sort of advice from a famously workaholic Cabinet Minister, not averse to e-mailing staff before the rest of us get up, it really is time to slow down.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Lib Dem scrappage scheme latest

This is Vince Cable's answer to a question about the proposed St Athan defence academy project, as broadcast this morning:

"No scrapping at all. I don't know how much you've read what I've said. But I was simply reporting evaluations by other people that there were questions about how important it was. I didn't actually refer to it being scrapped at all.......certainly didn't talk at all about cutting or culling that's been attributed to me, but we've got to have a critical review of these things. of course the government hasnt delivered this project as it happens I mean there's question marks with that."

And this is what he said a week ago were among his main proposals for economic recovery:

"Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping the Eurofighter and Tranche 3 (£5 billion over 6 years), the A400M (total cost £22 billion), Nimrod MRA4, the Defence Training Review contract (£13 billion over 25 years) and
the Trident submarine successor (£70 billion over 25 years)."

The halo slips again?

Vince Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Treasury spokesman and sage of Twickenham, joined us for the Good Morning Wales outside broadcast from Bournemouth today.

As you might expect, Bethan Rhys Roberts asked him about the proposed defence training academy at St Athan, which featured in his "recovery plan for the UK" published last week.

"I didn't actually refer to it being scrapped at all," said Dr Cable.

Really? This is what the pamphlet says the main proposals are:

"Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping the Eurofighter and Tranche 3 (£5 billion over 6 years), the A400M (total cost £22 billion), Nimrod MRA4, the Defence Training Review contract (£13 billion over 25 years) and the Trident submarine successor (£70 billion over 25 years)."

Is it just me, or has Dr Cable's halo slipped again? It's all a bit shocking. They'll be telling us Father Christmas doesn't exist next.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Is Vince Cable's halo slipping again? The Lib Dems' national treasure's proposed levy on expensive homes appears to be unravelling.

Dr Cable's team say the charge - applied on the value of homes above £1m - is a UK-wide tax.

Oh not it's not say his friends in the Welsh Liberal Democrats. They say the Assembly Government - and the Scottish Parliament - would be able to opt out of a levy, the proceeds of which would raise tax thresholds across the UK, lifting the poorest out of income tax altogether.

Property tends to be cheaper in Wales, with fewer £1m-plus houses, so it's questionable how much the levy would raise.

The tax would apparently be based on land registry values - i.e. sales. So if you bought your home for £60,000 forty years ago and it's now worth £2m you wouldn't pay the levy.

It would also be temporary and apply only until a local income tax is introduced.

The charge has been described as a "mansion tax" although constituents of some Lib Dem MPs in south-west London could re-brand it as a "terrace tax".

Could this possibly be less a policy and another one of Dr Cable's famous "first, rough attempts"?

Presumably not, as the "framework of principles" underlying all Lib Dem tax policy includes "simplicity - tax policies should be clear to taxpayers and new policy should aim to eliminate complexity in existing legislation."

That's all clear then.

Money saving offer

Ed Balls's suggestion that £2bn could be cut off the schools budget in England is not an entirely academic debate for those interested in Welsh politics.

Students of the Barnett formula will already have worked out that this would leave the Welsh Assembly Government with around £100m less to spend.

It's a sign of how quickly the economic crisis has changed the political debate that a Labour Minister has been able to float the idea without howls of outrage (beyond the teaching unions).

If the idea had come from, say, the Conservatives, even in dire economic times, politicians in Cardiff Bay would be sticking pins in their John Redwood effigy dolls.

Hold the front page

Hold the front page. Well, the Western Mail did. Its front page marks the remarkable news that the Lib Dems will enter the next election campaign with at least one policy unchanged from the last.

The party wants to scrap the Welsh Secretary's role in the UK Cabinet, merging it into a new Department of the Nations and Regions.

This is part of an attempt to cut public spending by cutting the cost of government, even if the party's leader in Wales could not say, on the Politics Show yesterday, how much would be saved by the move.

Today, the Tory-bashing mood in Bournemouth continues, with Vincent Cable attacking George Osborne and his party.

Saint Vince, as he is known among the Lib Dems, will say of the Tories: "They pose as tough guys cutting spending sooner and deeper than anyone else" before accusing them of "political cynicism".

The Lib Dems, of course, would never join the rush to pose as tough guys cutting spending. Dr Cable's idea last week for saving £13bn from the defence budget - scrapping the training academy scheduled for St Athan - is now "under review" according to Nick Clegg.

There's euphemistic talk of "robust discussions" between Lib Dems in Wales and Westminster after the storm generated by the idea, although Dr Cable appeared to defend it on the BBC News Channel at the weekend.

Kirsty Williams, kept in the dark by her colleagues, says communication will improve: "We're simply not going to put up with it any more."

That's Vince told, then.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Fashion victim and cake

Greetings from Bournemouth, where the fine weather and free cake on offer at the Liberal Democrat conference is almost enough to leave me in a sunny mood at the start of the (UK) conference season.

The cake marks a return to the cheesy stunts and photo-opportunities enjoyed by Lib Dems in years gone by.

A party worker donned a Gordon Brown mask to deliver the said cake to the party's leader in Wales, Kirsty Williams.

She was kind enough to give me the first slice, even if it was smaller than you might expect. The point the Lib Dems were making is that Wales gets a smaller slice than it should when it comes to public spending.

I took the opportunity to canvass English Lib Dem activists to see whether they'd fancy giving up some cash from their constituncies to spend on public services in Wales.

And, well-meaning souls that they are, most agreed, including a man from Harrow who argued that London already subsidises the rest of the UK to the tune of £11bn a year so a few more million wouldn't make much difference.

On a fashion note, a colleague noted that Ms Williams was wearing a dress identical to that worn during her role as presenter of the Welsh Mastermind.

If I ever turn up at a Lib Dem conference and discover I share a wardrobe item with Peter Black you have permission to shoot me before I reach for the revolver myself.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Public service blogging

Consensus politics lives, up to a point. Labour, Plaid Cymru and SNP politicians emerged from today's Joint Ministerial Committee at Westminster to declare unity on the issue of the day - public spending.

Their cause - endorsed by the arrival of Gordon Brown towards the end of the meeting - was the need to keep spending high until the recession is over, a policy that isolates the Conservatives.

There were limits to the consensus. The Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition that runs the Welsh Assembly Government want an advance on their budget for 2011/2012 so they can carry on spending next April for the 2010/2011 financial year.

Will they get it? Welsh Secretary Peter Hain pointed out that "you can't keep bringing forward capital spending because it's within a fixed envelope over a period of years" although UK Ministers will consider the request. Ministers hope that economic recovery will be underway before next April, removing the need for a continued fiscal stimulus.

Plaid were also happy to get agreement for Ministers and officials to consider independent arbitration in deciding levels of public spending in Wales. At the moment the Treasury decides how the Barnett formula works and whether Wales gets a slice of extra spending in England, e.g. on the London Olympics.

Peter Hain offered limited hope to his nationalist partners/foes: "You cannot in the end settle issues of spending and finance and the distribution in our case between England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland by some independent court. You need to find a way of resolving disputes but in the end it'll come down to politics and what the public support and don't support."

The flippin' obvious

A gold star to Tomos Livingstone for revealing the truth about joined up opposition within the Liberal Democrats.

As one Welsh party official put it in an email to party HQ/federal colleagues at Westminster/their London masters* (*delete according to taste), "We had no idea this saving would be identified and are now dealing with media 'did you knows?' - it's flippin' obvious we didn't....the longer we leave it the more apparent the disconnect."

Enough of this, I've got a story to do that involves the Barnett formula and ministerial committees. Have all my Christmases really come early?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Cutting it fine

The Lib Dems are not the only party looking at defence cuts.

The Telegraph reports that the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has a range of military projects in his sights, among them the A400M airlifter, the wings for which would be made at Broughton, that favoured photo-opportunity for every politician heading to North-East Wales.

The A400M is another of the projects Vince Cable would scrap, according to his "first, rough attempt".

Facing facts or facing both ways?

More news from the Welsh Lib Dems here. The man who describes himself as the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Wales says it's time to face facts over spending.

Roger Williams says: "All politicians must face up to the fact that we will need to cut spending to reduce the deficit, and they need to start outlining what they would cut, rather than making tokenistic gestures, or avoiding the issue altogether.

"While Brown and Cameron are playing hide and seek over cuts, Vince Cable has outlined a set of serious proposals that would make a major impact on reducing our levels of debt. This is by no means the full list of what needs to be done, and more hard choices will have to be made in the run-up to the general election, but this is an important first step."

An important first step or a "rough, first attempt"? With the Lib Dems, you don't need to choose.

The Things They Say

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams on the proposed military training academy at St Athan:

"It is hard to underestimate the economic impact this will have if St Athan's bid is successful. It is a huge investment in Wales and the people of Wales, and my congratulations go to all those who have worked on the bid, who have been vigorously promoting the advantages of a South Wales location and the useful experience of the local workforce.

"There have been a number of job losses and closure threats at St Athan over the past few years, but this contract should now bring some stability to the workers and to local people. It is a vote of confidence not just in St Athan, but in the whole of Wales - a recognition that we are a location with expertise, a country with ability, a place to do business."

That was Kirsty Williams speaking on January 17, 2007. Or perhaps that was just a "first, rough attempt".

Sandals in the wind

The Lib Dems appear to have got their sandals in a twist after I highlighted a policy proposal put forward by their Treasury spokesman and deputy leader - an idea that would save billions but could also mean thousands of expected jobs would never be created.

The party has put Dr Cable's idea on its website but has now added the disclaimer: "Please note: this is not official Liberal Democrat policy and examples are illustrative and represent only a first, rough attempt."

It's just coincidence that the St Athan proposal appears in the same sentence as the plan to scrap Trident, which was party policy the last time I looked.

Perhaps by "first, rough attempt" (an interesting concept for someone who would be Chancellor to publish) they simply mean an embarrassing cock-up.

Lib Dem Axe-Man

No-one can accuse the Lib Dems of refusing to use the c-word. Their Treasury guru, Vince Cable, is publishing today a list of where the axe would fall should they win power.

His chums in the Welsh Lib Dems may or may not be thrilled to learn that Dr Cable would scrap the defence training review contract, estimated to be worth £13bn, a project that would see a defence training academcy set up in St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Dr C argues that this is believed to be a "highly expensive" option and would therefore scrap the contract.

No news yet on what the Welsh Lib Dems, who previously supported the project, think of plans to scrap one of the largest investments Wales has seen along with the prospect of several thousand jobs.

UPDATE: The Welsh Lib Dems, who appear to have been caught on the hop by their economic expert, say his views - which they circulated - are not party policy although they do indicate "the direction of travel" (their ghastly phrase, not mine) of the cuts required.

Clearly, only irresponsible hacks could confuse the views of someone who describes himself as the "Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor" and is deputy leader of his party with party policy.

St Vince's spin doctors deny that he's calling for it to be scrapped. I must have been confused by this excerpt from his pamphlet: "The main proposals are.......Reducing the amount of waste in the defence procurement process, including scrapping........the Defence Training Review contract (£13bn over 25 years)".

As he puts it himself: "The time for generalities is over".

Monday, 14 September 2009

Accountable to parents?

Devolution may mean different policies for different parts of Britain but UK-wide political parties tend to apply similar principles everywhere.

Well, they do sometimes. Was the scrapping of tests for primary school pupils in Wales (and replacement by internal teacher assessment) an example of "Welsh solutions for Welsh problems" or bad news for parents?

Here's Lord Mandelson's take on the issue, in an English context:"The test for political parties over the next few years is whether they can make the tough decisions that protect the frontline. It's clear from our plans to create real rights and guarantees in the NHS that we will do this. Why are the Tories so unwilling?Why do they want to scrap even the most basic guarantees?

"That is the question they must answer if anyone is to believe they are serious about protecting frontline services.In schools, the same principle is being applied where the Tories are proposing to drop the SATS test in the last year of primary school. Accountability to parents is to be sacrificed in favour of the producer interest. It’s part of the same unspoken pact."

Leaving aside advice on accountability from the unelected House of Lords, that may be a line to remember the next time Gordon Brown's cabinet drops by west of Offa's Dyke.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Back to school

A slightly worrying pledge from the Conservatives to make the local school on my adopted manor "one of the best secondary's in the country".

Hopefully, the school in question will one day be good enough to teach its pupils about apostrophes and plurals.

UPDATE: Zac Goldsmith, for it is he, tells me with a generosity of spirit not always found in politics: "Thank you for pointing this out. As an editor for more than 10 years, I ought to have avoided this one...!"

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The first snub of September?

It's that time of year again. A hefty document lands on the doormat to quel that almost tangible sense of anticipation.

But enough about the new Argos catalogue, the equally lengthy agenda for the Liberal Democrat conference has also arrived amid no less excitement.

Students of Welsh politics who plough through A fresh start for Britain - Choosing a different, better future, will be quick to spot one of those "snubs to Wales" that punctuate the political landscape.

This is, says Nick Clegg, "one of our most important conferences ever". But there is no space on the conference platform for the new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.

There is a speaking slot for her Scottish counterpart, Tavish Scott MSP, but Ms Williams is likely to be seen but not heard in the conference hall.

Party officials deny that this is response to the Lib Dems' 5th place in the European elections in Wales and say Ms W had a starring role at their spring gathering even if that was largely ignored by a weary media suffering from conference fatigue.

UPDATE: The Lib Dems now say their Welsh leader will be "summating" a debate on devolution on the Sunday morning, and will therefore be heard as well as seen in the conference hall even if she is denied a keynote platform role.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Street wise

Cardiff already has a Lloyd George Avenue and a James Callaghan Square. Future generations will doubtless be able to stroll along Rhodri Morgan Boulevard or Ieuan Wyn Jones Crescent.

A colleague reports that the "One Wales Agreement" coalition deal between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru has already been marked in the United States.

Perhaps it's time to commemorate the agreement closer to home. Coalition Close, anyone?