Wednesday, 29 April 2009


I returned to the news treadmill after two days filming out of the office to discover my inbox bursting with Welsh Conservative indignation over the consequences of Alistair Darling's Budget.


Another from the same source quotes the Tories' leader in the Welsh Assembly warning of "cuts which will have damaging consequences for jobs and services across Wales".

The "cuts" in question start to bite next year, by which time David Cameron may be Prime Minister.

The Welsh Tories appear so entrenched in an opposition mentality they find it difficult to adjust to the prospect of government - or Mr Cameron's "government of thrift" message has yet to filter down the M4.

At Westminster, the only Tory spending commitments are to protect the NHS budget and maintain international development spending. Everything else is up for grabs.

It's only honest to point out that, in the current economic climate, whoever wins the election next year the chances are public spending will be squeezed even more in the years to come.

As Andrew Rawnsley writes (from a Westminster perspective): "The politics of the post-New Labour era will be about how to ration a shrinking cake."

And if Nick Bourne rings up George Osborne, he may discover that the next Conservative Government is likely to favour smaller slices all round.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Sore points

Political blogging may be a little light over the next day or so. I've stepped off the news treadmill for 36 hours.

I'm also recovering from the London Marathon. I ran, should you be interested, 3hrs 12mins 08secs, finishing 1,782nd behind Tarzan and Elvis but in front of most of the 35,00 runners.

I am now officially "good for my age". Alas, I am also feeling my age and can now only go up or down stairs with the speed of a dalek. (A sunburnt dalek at that, it was quite warm out there)The London Marathon is the most democratic of sporting events - today's politicians would probably call it "inclusive".

I can't have a kickabout at Old Trafford with Ryan Giggs but I can take part in a race alongside Olympic champions on the same course before the same cheering crowds.

My time qualifies me for a guaranteed entry for next year. Er, thanks but no thanks. I'll be joining the crowds in 2010 to cheer on the runners.

It will also leave the field clear for Chris Bryant to storm to victory. I'm not too much of a gentleman to point out that I beat the Rhondda MP by more than half an hour, although he had rather more money for a good cause dependent on his run.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

There may be trouble ahead

"Historic" is a word used almost daily in Welsh politics, but a small landmark looms next week.

MPs are due to grill Ministers from Cardiff Bay and Westminster on the Welsh Assembly Government's request to be able to legislate on the Welsh language.

Assembly Government Culture Minister Alun Ffred Jones will be followed by Wales Office Minister Wayne David during next Monday's meeting of the Welsh affairs select committee.

Ministers from both Parliament and the Assembly frequently appear before the committee to discuss plans to transfer law-making plans to Cardiff Bay.

But this is likely to be the first time that the UK Government Minister doesn't simply endorse the request for powers but voices reservations about the Assembly Government's request.

Wayne David, if prompted, is expected to refer to the results of a Wales Office consultation exercise that insiders say proved overwhelmingly hostile to the idea of extra responsibilities on business to offer services in Welsh.

Welsh Ramblings suggests the Wales Office has skewed its consultation exercise to obtain the sceptical response it wanted. Either way, another outbreak of tension between politicians either side of Offa's Dyke looks inevitable.

Snub to England?

Gwydyr House is one of the few public buildings in Whitehall not flying St George's flag today.

The BBC reports that all UK government buildings with two flag poles are being encouraged to fly the English national flag, alongside the union flag, on St George's Day.

The Wales Office is apparently exempt from the rule and is flying the union flag and the red dragon.

Downing Street says it will be flying the Welsh national flag on March 1 next year. No word yet on whether those Whitehall departments flying the flag of St George will follow suit on St David's Day.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Spinning and swimming

Disraeli warned us of lies, damned lies and statistics but you'd think in this post-McBride era it would be difficult to spin real figures.

I've spent the day swimming in figures, amid claims and counter-claims of spending cuts that result from the Chancellor's Budget.

His "efficiency saving" is your spending cut, or not if savings are recycled into public services. Then again, if efficiency savings worth billions are possible, what is that money currently being wasted on?

The Wales Office put the Welsh share of the "efficiency savings" at £216m "over two years", which neatly avoids the point that there are none in the first of those two years.

Alistair Darling has promised higher savings in the years after 2011. More pain (or value for the taxpayer?) is on the way.

Fears that the Welsh Assembly Government would get more than £400m less than expected are based on the UK Government allowing WAG to spend this year £120m from next year's budget - and not repeating the move next year. If WAG got an early birthday present, would it really complain when another gift from the same source didn't arrive on the same day?

The Plaid Cymru deputy first Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has accused "London Labour" (headed by those well-known cockneys Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) of imposing cuts on Wales.

The Wales Office insists the Assembly Government's Budget will still rise in real terms. Even if it gets £400m less than it expected - or hoped - would that really slash a £16bn budget?

Ministers say this 2.5 per cent cut in the expected (not actual) budget would still prove challenging, although many in the private sector face far worse at the moment.

The Institute of Directors makes the point: "We either squeeze public spending or higher taxation squeezes the life out of the economy".

But then the IoD never had to get elected.

A day of reckoning for all?

Apologies for the lack of regular blogging of late: I've been too busy working.

Today, as you might well have noticed is Budget Day, or "the day of reckoning" as the Tories would have it.

It's the day we discover just how deep in it we are - well, possibly. Treasury economic forecasts are not known for their accuracy of late.

We can predict political reaction with more certainty. Future public spending plans will be tight, and made tighter by what the Treasury calls "efficiency savings" - the ones that have alarmed Ministers in Cardiff Bay so much.

With overall public spending around £500bn a year, "efficiency savings" of around £5bn-£15bn don't sound like much, but the knock-on effects in Wales could be challenging.

Efficiency savings may be seen as Treasury-speak for spending cuts, although Peter Hain points out that they can be recycled to deliver improved public services. His view that the Welsh adminstrative bureaucracy has been too comfortable for too long may at least spark a debate in Cardiff Bay.

One of the consequences of a system where a Government is responsible only for spending (not raising) its Budget is that there is always someone else to blame - in this case, the UK (or London, if you work for Plaid Cymru) Government.

So expect howls of outrage from opposition parties in Cardiff Bay as the spending squeeze bites.

While Labour MPs hail "a Budget for jobs" (on the day unemployment rises again), Plaid Cymru will doubtless describe it as a Budget for the south-east of England (from a Scottish Chancellor).

Plaid argue that the UK Government's recovery plan has so far benefited largely London and the south-east of England, even if Northern Rock, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Halifax Bank of Scotland and the Dunfermline Building Society have their roots elsewhere.

The squeeze really bites from next year, by when there may be a change of government in London.

So today could be a day of reckoning for the Tories too. Will Tories in the Welsh Assembly agree with George Osborne that public spending needs to be curbed? (and not just in non-devolved areas)

Will the Conservatives at Westmisnter match Labour's spending plans? Almost certainly not.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan told me: "We will spend less than Labour - we are looking for less of an increase in public spending than Labour has planned in." A point worth remembering should the Welsh Tories bemoan lower public spending to come.

With spending cuts and higher taxes to come, next year's general election may be one not worth winning - "a poisoned chalice" as the Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott puts it.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

What are the chances......?

Going now, on eBay, several signed copies of the above Welsh Assembly first day cover signed by Lord Kinnock, not in previous incarnations known as a great campaigner for the institution.

Next week on eBay a Queen's Golden Jubilee cover signed by Paul Flynn MP, a copy of Chris Mullin's diaries signed by Cheryl Gillan, and two DVDs signed by the Home Secretary....

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Ieuan Who?

Er, don't mention this within earshot of the current Plaid Cymru leadership, but the party's parliamentary candidate in Montgomeryshire has revealed her own political heroes.

Asked to name the best Plaid Cymru leader, Heledd Fychan chose not to take the easy way out and name the man who led the party into government and is currently deputy First Minister (Ieuan Wyn Jones) or indeed her former boss at Westminster (parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd).

Answering questions on the Mars Hill website, Heledd Fychan says: "Best Plaid Cymru leader would have to be Dafydd Wigley. He's an amazing politician, and managed to connect with people in every corner of Wales in a way no other Plaid Cymru leader had ever succeeded before."

Q: Which political figure has been your greatest inspiration?
A: "Dafydd Wigley again. His charisma and ability to speak publicly is outstanding."

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Saying sorry, and blogging right and left

So. apart from all those headlines, how was your Easter, Prime Minister?

The departure of Damian McBride has led to old scores being settled from Fleet Street to the backbenches. ormer Cabinet Ministers Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers pitched in today barely disguising their glee at the removal of someone they held responsible for briefing against them.

Rachel Sylvester in The Times reminds readers that despite Mr Brown's moral compass the Prime Minister has often recruited attack dogs to get his message across while nullifying opponents.

Perhaps he got the idea from Tony Blair. He once advised David Miliband, according to the Chris Mullin diaries, "to go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them". Except Gordon Brown forgot the smiling bit.

The Conservatives have returned to their occasional game of trying to get the Prime Minister to say sorry, knowing that is unlikely to happen.

Ministers and backbench MPs have argued that it's not possible for a politician to apologise for something for which he is not directly responsible. That ignores this precedent over slavery.

The McBride affair and Labour's doomed Red Rag website - has also fuelled the debate over the nature of the blogosphere.

Lance Price makes the point that "blogging is always going to be easier for those attacking the party in power than for anybody seeking to defend it."

Iain Dale made a similar point to the Guardian, arguing that blogging appeals to the individualistic streak on the right.

But in his analysis of the state of the Welsh blogosphere, he wonders why there are so few right-wing bloggers of note west of Offa's Dyke: "It rather blows one popular theory out of the water - that right wing blogs are so popular and prevalent because it is far easier to blog in opposition.

"If that were the case," he writes, "Wales and Scotland would be at the forefront of right of centre blogging!"

Perhaps the perceived weakness of right-wing blogs lies in the nature of the right in Wales? Scarred by the Redwood years, election defeats and the referendum loss, the Welsh Conservatives have re-branded themselves to try to ditch their image as an English party.

The result has been successful enough to allow left-of-centre parties such as the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru to flirt with the Tories as coalition partners although the "inclusive" nature of Welsh politics means that real debates over the size of the state and public spending in Wales are often hard to discover in the blogosphere.

Marathon Men

Rhodri Morgan may not have made it as a Minister at Westminster but he left his mark in other ways.

Not just as the rebel without a pause in the lengthy debates over the Cardiff Bay barrage or his role as an effective opposition frontbencher, but his running has secured him a place in an unusual "hall of fame".

The Welsh First Minister remains the fourth fastest sitting MP in the London Marathon. Morgan completed the 26-mile and 385-yards course in a respectable 3hrs 14mins 44secs in 1988, at the age of 48.

He is 20 minutes faster than any other Welsh MP past or present. Chris Bryant, Alan Howarth, Alun Michael, Stephen Crabb, Albert Owen and Keith Best are among those to have run it.

Their efforts were celebrated at a dinner at a swanky London restaurant in January. Author and runner John Bryant reports: "And there was a toast to Mike Steele, who has run 11 marathons. An Australian who has worked as a journalistin the Westminster Lobby {largely for ITV Wales}, he is always talking another fresh-faced MP into tackling the greatest race on earth."

Mike has acted as unofficial "chief whip" to the running MPs - and also sorted entries for parliamentary hacks like me who lost out in the general ballot.

One of those "fresh-faced MPs", Chris Bryant, is running his third marathon later this month. The deputy leader of the Commons is running this year to raise funds for the Army Benevolent fund and you can sponsor him here.

Fitness permitting, I'll be joining him on the streets of London for what will be my 10th (and, Mrs C tells me, my last) marathon. Next year, by way of mid-life crisis, I'll be saving up for the little red sports car and leather jacket.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cheryl has them rolling their eyes

Chris Mullin has reportedly spent some of the time since his diaries were published penning apologies to colleagues he criticised in A View from the Foothills.

No word yet on whether Cheryl Gillan should check her pigeonhole. Mullin is brutal in his assessment of the Shadow Welsh Secretary in her previous role shadowing him at International Development during the passage of a Bill in March 2001.

He writes: "The other piece of good fortune is Cheryl Gillan. Definitely not the A Team. She threw away the first half-hour with another diatribe against the iniquity of the timetable.

"She then tested the patience of the committee with a speech lasting the best part of an hour on the first group of amendments, several times having to be called to order by the chair.

"Once or twice I caught Tories on the benches behind her rolling their eyes; several times the Tory whip, Keith Simpson, winked at me.

"At one particularly low point, she succeeded in talking every one of her colleagues out of the room."

Ms Gillan says she doesn't wish to comment on the book.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Very select?

If you or I only turned up for work six days out of 10, questions would be asked by our employers.

But for MPs on select committees an absence rate of around 40 per cent is par for the course.

The eleven members of the select committee on Welsh affairs managed an overall attendance rate of 60.4 per cent last year, only slightly below the average for Commons committees.

The average disguises variations between MPs. One - the chair, Hywel Francis - went to all 42 meetings. He believes his committee is a hard-working one.

Three members attended fewer than half. David Davies, the Tory MP for Monmouth, went to just eight, largely due to his membership of the slightly more prestigious home affairs committee.

Other members and the number of meetings attended: Nia Griffith 18 out of 42, Sian James 23/42, David Jones 35/42, Martyn Jones 16/42, Alun Michael 31/40, Albert Owen 25/42, Mark Pritchard 19/34, Hywel Williams 28/42 and Mark Williams 30/42.

All MPs have other duties, of course, and the introduction of more "family-friendly" hours at Westminster has made it harder for backbenchers to pack everything into a contracted working week.

The committee plays a growing role scrutinising requests from the Welsh Assembly for more law-making powers, a role that has won it critics as well as friends.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Sir Emyr does stand-up

Here's a joke Sir Emyr Jones Parry won't be telling at gatherings of the All-Wales Convention, as re-told by Chris Mullin in his diaries.

"At breakfast Sir Emyr tells a joke about an American general, seconded to Sandhurst who asks of a passing lieutenant, 'Officer, can you tell me where the lecture theatre is at?'

The lieutenant dully tells him, adding pedantically, 'In Britain, sir, we don't put the preposition at the end of the sentence.'

'I get you, lieutenant,' replies the general. 'You mean I should have asked, 'Where is the lecture theatre at, arsehole?'"

Sir Emyr, in his previous role at the UN comes out of the diaries well. Mullin describes him and his wife Lynn: "as agreeable and down to earth a couple as one could hope to find in Her Majesty's diplomatic service," a service in which Mullin believes the toffs have been superseded by bright grammar school boys.

Not everyone in Welsh politics emerges from the hugely enjoyable A View From The Foothills (Profile Books, £20) with their reputations intact. In the absence of politicians from Westminster, I'll be dipping into the book during the next few days.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Formula One

I've just realised what's been missing from my life these past few months.

My sabbatical from Barnet formula stories is over. As the world's most powerful leaders met in London, I caught up with last night's meeting of a House of Lords committee to discuss the formula that dictates much public spending in devolved nations.

Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy was robust in his defence of a formula which opposition politicians (and some Labour ones) believe short-changes Wales.

Pointing out that he'd lived with the formula for much of his political life, he told peers: "Although there have been ups and downs, I can't think of a better one."

Barnett critics argue that the population-based formula takes no note of needs in poorer parts of the UK.

The Murphy response? "I think it has met the needs certainly in terms of the country I represent around the Cabinet table. I do believe it's met those needs well, indeed some
some English Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords would think it's met them too well.

"Certainly from the devolved administrations' point of view they have done pretty well I think out of the system."

That prompted a challenge from Lord Richard of Ammanford, he of that report on the Assembly's powers: "I don't think that's the view of the administration in Cardiff."

The former leader of the Lords said that having taken evidence in Cardiff: "It was very difficult to find anybody saying an enthusiastic word for the existing Barnett formula and the general feeling there seemed to be that a fairer system was capable of being developed and it would be more equitable were it to be introduced."

Paul Murphy: "I'm not saying it's perfect but I don't think there's a better's served us well.

"The problem you have always got is that we'll get people in Wales arguing the case that the formula isn't good enough for them and then you get people in England saying it's too good for them."

Replacing it could be "more trouble than it's worth".

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Welsh Goat

I interviewed Gordon Brown's newest "goat" this morning - Lord Davies of Abersoch, Trade Minister member of Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents".

Mervyn Davies was chairman of Standard Chartered plc before becoming being "surprised but delighted" to get the call from the PM earlier this year.

He took over from Lord (Digby) Jones, whose ministerial career convinced him that the half the civil service should be sacked.

Their lordships have discussed the frustrations of the job. Lord Jones also upset a few Labour politicians by refusing to join the party or take the Labour whip in the House of Lords.

Those are two mistakes Lord Davies won't be making. As a Labour voter, he had no problem joining the party and is taking the Labour whip.

He was predictably upbeat about prospects for the Welsh economy: "Wales remains a hugely attractive country and place for inward investment.

"What I've also been impressed by is how many new businesses have been created in the last five, ten years, very entrepreneurial companies that now have an opportunity to export given the state of the pound."

Lord Davies sees his new job as a chance to put something back. It's certainly a risk, going from one unpopular profession - banking - to another - politics. Next stop estate agency or journalism?

Much ado.....?

How many people have bought their council home recently?

Anyone following recent political debate in Wales would think it was a pressing issue, with the Assembly Government keen to acquire the power to suspend the right to buy to help tackle a shortage of affordable housing.

The issue has fuelled an increasingly angry row between some politicians in Wales and Westminster. A compromise - offering a UK Cabinet Minister a veto before the power is exercised - has poured more oil on troubled waters.

MPs on the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee today issued a statement distancing themselves from the inclusion of the veto. They say it was included after negotiations between WAG and the Wales Office.

This may be a row over a power that isn't used and a veto that isn't exercised.

So why the fuss? This graph shows that right-to-buy sales have slumped to a five-year low, from 1,500 in early 2004 to just 32 in the last three months of 2008.

Yes, according to WAG's own figures, only 32 homes were sold under the right-to-buy across the whole of Wales between October and December 2008 - 11 a month.

As the graph's two blue lines fall away, an invisible (red and green?) line reflecting political activity soars from left to right.

You can read more about the figures here.

An invisible nation no more

Members of the Welsh Assembly have occasionally been known to accuse Fleet Street of ignoring their institution.

There will then be cheers from Cardiff Bay for The Times after the newspaper included two AMs in its list of the nine most outrageous expenses claims ever.

Welsh Tory leader, Nick Bourne, may be less than thrilled to see his taxpayer-funded purchase of an iPod at number 5 (four places behind Jacqui Smith's porn).

The paper doesn't point out that he did pay back the cash, although it's cheeky enough to mention that he also put a trouser press on expenses too.