Thursday, 8 April 2010

All other blog is a BBC blog

Regular readers, both of you, may have noticed one or two changes to the blog formerly known as David Cornock's other blog.

I'm going respectable. Seven years after I began one of the first BBC blogs (Nick Robinson was another pioneer - whatever happened to him?) I'm going to be blogging on the BBC platform again.

This blog will cease to carry my thoughts on matters political. You'll need to re-tune to discover my latest in-depth analysis on the general election, LCOs, the Barnett formula and other equally fascinating topics.

I won't be posting about politics here again, but the other blog will remain as an archive so future generations can savour my take on Westminster life during the last few years. I do hope those future generations will be suitably grateful.

A big thank you to those of you who stuck with my other blog during its unofficial years. I hope we'll meet again on the BBC site.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Gordon's guarantee - does he mean us?

Gordon Brown's election launch included "a direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain" on public services.

Many of these services are run by devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, which may lead you to wonder whether the "direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain" is worth the paper it wasn't written on.

This is what the PM said outside No 10: "I want to give a direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain that when you need the police, when you need help with cancer care, when you need your GP at the evenings or at weekends, when you need as a child to have personal tuition in your school, then these public services will be there, directly guaranteed to you as an individual citizen when you need them and accountable to you and your family."

Your GP at evenings and weekends? Personal tuition? These sound like England-only pledges, available only to some of the citizens of Britain. Labour certainly cannot guarantee them in Scotland.

This is the more carefully-worded text version of what he said, from the Labour website: "I pledge this guarantee, a personal guarantee for you - that when you need to get in touch with the police, when you need cancer care, when you need access to a GP in the evenings or at weekends, when you need one to one tuition for your child, our public services will be there guaranteed to you and accountable to you and your family."

We will have to wait for Labour's Welsh manifesto, written by the Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant, to discover how the party squares the circle between what Mr Brown said and what he can actually deliver.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

First election snub to Wales?

The circus that is Abingdon, aka College Green, currently features media folk from across the globe, a lone resilient anti-Iraq protester, a bookmaker or two, and someone giving away party political crisps.

This stunt allows voters to display their allegiance by opting for the "Real Election politi-crisps" of their choice. Each colour-coded bag displays the appropriate party leader.

They may contain 10.5g of fat in every bag, but the makers, who are based in South Wales, insist there are no artificial policies.

All come in the identical sea salt flavour; the three I examined are all best before July 2010.

So why only three? Is this the first election snub to Wales guaranteed to raise the hackles of Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader and push the Elfynometer into overdrive?

Apparently not. The makers insist they have no allegiance whatsoever and nationalists from Wales and elsewhere can display their views by clicking on "other" on the special webpage set up for the campaign.

On the Buses

Perhaps it was turning 60 two months ago but Peter Hain is displaying a fierce pre-occupation with bus passes.

Three times on Radio Wales this morning, before the election had even been called, the Welsh Secretary warned of the threat posed to these freebies by a Conservative victory.

The Tories deny that they would scrap the bus passes. Welsh bus passes are funded by the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government, which has given no indication it would scrap them if forced to deal with a reduced budget from Westminster under a Conservative government.

So voters may assume the bus passes will survive the election, whoever wins on May 6.

The passes themselves are often highlighted as an example of Wales leading the way - as the first nation to introduce them. Whisper it quietly but the idea - contained in Labour's 1999 Welsh Assembly election manifesto - came from London where over-60s have had free bus and Tube travel for years.

Peter Hain, yes him again, could not understand why his retired parents, then living in Putney, got free travel but pensioners in his own constituency did not.

The man himself now qualifies for his own free bus pass and indeed has used his newly-acquired senior railcard to travel between Neath and Westminster.

Downing Street: Waiting for Gordo

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

Abingdon Green, opposite the House of Commons, at 7am, as seen from the Radio Wales "pop-up" studio (two folding camp chairs).

The green currently resembles a Milletts outdoor showroom as the world's media shelter beneath temporary gazebos.

No sign of Gordon Brown yet today, although David Cameron has been for a run near his home in North Kensington before making tea for waiting reporters outside.

Today's Sun does have a front page photograph of the Prime Minister returning from his own jog around St James's Park.

Sounds like Nick Clegg and Elfyn Llwyd need to invest in a pair of running shoes to keep up.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Cuts: Labour MPs forced to share vocabularies

The Conservatives aren't the only ones singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to their Budget message.

Labour MPs have had another case of great minds thinking rather alike.

Here is Aberavon MP Hywel Francis's take on what Alistair Darling had to say yesterday: "I welcome this Budget as it secures the recovery – rather than putting it at risk. It builds a future based on growth and jobs – rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Martyn Jones from Clwyd South had this to say: "This Budget secures the recovery rather than putting it at risk.

"It builds a future based on growth and jobs rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Perhaps the Chancellor's new-found efficiency savings have already been implemented, forcing Labour backbenchers to share vocabularies.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Budget Day, the Tory way

Here's a rough timeline of Conservative activity on Budget Day at Westminster.

Early afternoon (via @paulwaugh) Tory whips text to MPs says: "This is an empty Budget, which proves Labour has run out of ideas".

Mid afternoon: Tory MP declines interview because they've been told not to comment before official briefing.

4.54pm: Conservative Campaign Headquarters e-mail journalists: "An empty Budget: the day Labour were found out."

"The only new policies were ones stolen from the Conservatives – like the stamp duty cut and new university places. It was the day Labour were found out.

"Britain can see that only the Conservatives have the energy, leadership and ideas to get Britain working."

4.59pm:  Press release arrives from Cheryl Gillan: “This really was the day when Labour was found out. It is clear now that only Conservatives have the energy and drive to get Wales and Britain back on track.”
If demonstrating old New Labour-style on-message commitment wins votes then the Tories must be feeling optimistic.

Plaid MPs: why we cross picket lines

A Plaid Cymru spokeswoman e-mails to explain why the party's MPs will be crossing picket lines today:

"Plaid's AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour during this dispute by not crossing their picket lines. Plaid is urging the Westminster government to return to negotiations with the union immediately and the Assembly group will be writing to the Gordon Brown's government to impress on them the need to do so.

"It is also inconceivable that Members of Parliament representing Plaid Cymru should not attend the budget debate today.

“It was a tough decision between supporting the strikers and the importance of the up and coming budget on public sector workers given the agenda of the two main parties in Westminster.

"There is a difference between this and the meaningless attempts by opposition parties in Cardiff Bay to score petty political points during such a worrying time for so many public sector workers.

“Their actions show how little they care for the people affected by the Westminster government's plans to cut redundancy payments."

MPs cross where AMs fear to tread

"It is something ingrained in party thinking. We do not cross a picket line."

The words of Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones, quoted in today's Western Mail. They may create some difficulty for his Labour colleagues in Westminster, where pickets are out in force on Budget Day.

Chancellor Alistair Darling will have to cross a picket line to deliver his own Budget - and presumably run the risk of being called a scab by his party's leader in Wales.

In Cardiff Bay, Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs are staying away from the Welsh Assembly chamber.

Plaid Cymru say their AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour in this dispute.

Plaid's three MPs may also support union's right to withdraw labour during this dispute, but, according to a spokeswoman, they will be present in the Commons for the Budget statement.

No news yet on what Plaid AMs make of their colleagues' decision.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

So how was it for me?

The last time I went to Cardiff Crown Court I was a young reporter on the Western Mail with pretty good shorthand.

Today, almost a quarter of a century later, and with slightly less perfect Teeline, I was back: this time not as a reporter but as the son of a victim of crime.

Two things I learned today: the acoustics aren't so great in the public seats and you don't get to see the defendant's face during sentencing.

Sean White was smirking as he arrived at court and appeared to be smirking as he was taken down.

Perhaps he was born smirking, or he thought he got off lightly with a two-year sentence, the second out on licence.

The sentence would have been longer but the prosecution were unable to prove that White profited by more than the £2,000 he claimed. It was also reduced by one third for his guilty plea.

It was surreal to emerge from the court building and be faced by TV and still cameras and several hacks waiting to talk to my sister and me, an inside-out view of my daily existence.

All, from Real Radio to Wales News, asked me the how-do-you-feel question about the sentence.

I'm not unhappy with it. I'm not convinced keeping him banged up for longer would help the greater good. I'd rather see him doing some tough but useful community work, provided the judicial experience is enough to stop him doing something similar to someone else's mother.

On the other hand, perhaps he was smirking because he is genuinely terrified of the guys behind this and thinks he'll be safer inside.

For me, this not about revenge; it's not about the money. It's about how an evil bunch of greedy parasites tormented a dying elderly widow in her own home.

What pleased me most about the process was the way the judge, Paul Thomas QC, understood the impact of the crime on my mother and our family and the way he reflected that in the way he spoke to White.

The other question I've been asked today is: how did it happen?

That's a question, in the absence of my mother, none of us can fully answer. She was so ashamed at having been conned that she chose to suffer in silence with devastating consequences for her health.

We're not exactly the Waltons but throughout this she carried on as a Mum and devoted Granny with absolutely no hint of the inner mental torment she must have felt.

I thought our discovery of the scam would help give her peace of mind in her final weeks.

I was wrong. The shame she felt made things worse and she never came to terms with her fatal illness despite the brilliance of the staff at the Marie Curie Holme Tower hospice in Penarth.

I've been really touched by how many people have been in touch today and have shared or re-tweeted the story. The messages have helped restore my fractured faith in the fundamental decency of most people.

 I even had an e-mail from someone who was in Sunday School with my late father in Ammanford 70 years ago. Thank you all. Carry on re-tweeting.

It's not an obvious story to share, and re-living events today has been draining. I would rather not have had to bare my soul across the media but only by spreading the news can we alert people to the way some evil lowlifes target the old and vulnerable.

I have been asked the "closure" question a few times today. Part of me hates these psychobabble terms, but I understand what this one means. The main villains behind what the judge called this wicked enterprise are still out there so "closure" is some way off.

But as a family we can move on, to borrow another phrase from the world of psychobabble. We have to move on.

Back to the day job. Can I interest you in a fascinating item on the Barnett formula....?

The caring estate agent

This is where Sean White was arrested, on September 16 last year - outside Seraph Estates, an estate agency in Crwys Road, Cardiff, where he was sales manager.

He was later charged with two counts of money laundering. And back at work the next day.

Sean White continued to work at Seraph Estates for almost four months after his arrest.

In early January, he made a first appearance at Cardiff Crown Court. Intrigued by his continued employment, I telephoned his office to ask to speak to him, to be told: "It's his day off.".

"Er, can I speak to his boss please?" I spoke to Seraph's proprietor, Douglas Haig, who told me he was shocked to hear his sales manager had been charged with such serious offences. He said he was not aware Sean White had been arrested at his office. He suspended White (innocent until he pleaded guilty) the next day.

The police tell me Mr Haig was aware of his employee's arrest - Mr Haig says he was not. White only joined the staff of Seraph Estates months after the crime for which he was jailed today. There is no suggestion Douglas Haig knew what Sean White had been up to.

Indeed, Mr Haig trusted White so much he loaned him £20,000 - and is presumably still waiting for his money. He may have a long wait.

Readers of the South Wales Echo will have learned recently how Mr Haig is a man on a mission to rid landlords of their image as crooks. He just had the misfortune to employ a crook as his own sales manager.

Mr Haig told me: "I attend PACT [Police and Communities Together] meetings and give up a lot of my time doing things that other estate agents do not do because I believe we all have a responsibility for our environment. I'm not a crook and work hard to make Cardiff a better place."

Fair enough. He also told me: "We have been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a sales person."

I have patiently explained to Mr Haig that we've been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a mother and grandmother but then you would hope the man on the mission could have figured that out all by himself.

Seraph Estates are currently looking for a new sales negotiator.  The job description demands "out of the box ideas" - although hopefully Sean White won't be allowed out of his box to apply.

A life's savings gone: how?

They are the most jaw-dropping, eye-popping bank statements I have ever seen.

The pattern of spending resembles that of a Premier League footballer rather than an elderly widow. Has my mother suddenly swapped "tinsel and turkey" breaks in Falmouth for nights out at Bouji's?

These are cash withdrawals she made from branches of NatWest:

Penarth Branch:

6 May 2008 - £6,000,
22 July 2008 - £4,500,
29 July 2008 - £4,500,
19 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
5 Nov 2008 - £18,000,
14 Jan 2009 - £6,000,
31 March 2009 - £5,000,
16 April 2009 - £5,000,
5 May 2009 - £7,000.

Barry Town Hall:

29 July 2008 - £2,000,
20 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
11 Nov 2008 - £6,000,
21 Jan 2009 - £13,000,
26 March 2009 - £5,000,
1 May 2009 - £10,000,
5 May 2009 - £10,000,
4 June 2009 - £5,000,
10 June 2009 - £5,000.

Cardiff University Hospital branch:

19 Aug 2009 - £6,500

She also made two electronic transfers totalling £115,000, from her NatWest account to Sean White, who was jailed today.

How could it happen? It's a question I've been asked today by others, and one I've been asking myself for six months.

My mother had banked with NatWest and its predecessors for 61 years and was a customer of its Private Banking service - NatWest managed her life savings. She was a former bank employee and an RBS pensioner thanks to my late father's work there. His father worked for a NatWest predecessor. So discovering her spending habits was something of a shock to say the least.

As any son would, I contacted her bank as soon as I found the paper trail that led to today's case. I was told: "Unless Mrs Cornock told us she was the victim of fraud, there was nothing we could do."

NatWest told me that, like other banks, have a strict duty of confidentiality to other customers and could not have alerted family members to the pattern of withdrawals.

I questioned why a widow pensioner was given her first overdraft - of £5,000 - at the age of 76. NatWest said the overdraft facility was standard and it wrote to her - in July 2009 - to reduce the limit.

The bank promised to investigate my concerns last September. My mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I hoped to secure some peace of mind for her in her last months.

After six weeks, having heard little I asked the bank if contacting the press office would produce a quicker response. I was told: "No newspaper would be interested".

Journalists love a challenge, so I contacted the Observer and the Daily Mirror in the hope of getting some answers while my mother was still alive. It appears my news judgement is sounder than some who work in banking.

I questioned why the bank did not raise concerns over the sums involved, as they added up to more than the value of my mother's home. The bank told me that "no bank is able to know all these details for all its customers". My mother's home was insured by.....NatWest.

NatWest say their investigations revealed that counter staff carried out the checks required of any vulnerable customer withdrawing huge sums of money. Indeed, one staff member at Penarth went outside the branch with my mother to check she was not being followed.

The two payments to Sean White passed "due diligence" checks by the bank, which said it accepted my mother's assurances that they were to open a bond at HSBC (despite the cash going straight into White's account) and that they were to an accountant. (NatWest's personal tax service completed her tax returns each year - if she had an accountant, it was them).

Sadly, my mother died last November before NatWest completed their investigations.

NatWest have consistently denied any liability, but have (verbally) offered us £60,000 as a "goodwill gesture" which we have told them we are minded to accept as a way of moving on from this trauma that does not involve enriching lawyers.

As a BBC correspondent I strive to be fair and impartial in accordance with our Values. As a son writing a personal blog I am doing the same although you may not be surprised to learn that I have recently changed the banking habits of a lifetime.

Estate agent jailed over my Mum's life savings

This is Cardiff estate agent Sean White, as he would like his friends to see him, on a popular social networking site.

Facebook may be the only way his friends can see him in the near future, as he is now beginning a short term in what he would doubtless describe as a deceptively spacious prison cell.

White, of 18, Glenroy Street, Roath, Cardiff, is paying the penalty for laundering £115,000 from an old lady's life savings. His victim was Anne Cornock, a 76-year-old widow from the Vale of Glamorgan.

My mother did not live to see Sean White face justice. She died last November from cancer, her last months destroyed by the way Sean White and his mates conned her out of her life savings.

In all, she lost £272,300 in a scam linked to a new drive on her modest bungalow in Sully, near Penarth. Unknown to her family, who discovered the scam by accident while she was in hospital, she was conned and threatened for more than a year, too ashamed and frightened to call the police or tell anyone.

Today, at Cardiff Crown Court, Sean White was sentenced to two years - a year in jail, a year on licence -after pleading guilty to two counts of money laundering £115,000.

Judge Paul Thomas QC told White: "You were a vital component in this wicked enterprise. Without thoroughly dishonourable people like you, these men who exploited Mrs Cornock could not have profited so easily."

White committed the crimes while proprietor of his own business - Masons Homes (Rumney) Ltd. At the time of his arrest - and for three months afterwards - White was sales manager of Seraph Estates in Cardiff. The judge told him he would "never again be employed in a position of trust - and deservedly so".

White's defence was that he did not know where the money that ended up in his bank account came from, even though my mother's name clearly showed on online bank statements. White swiftly emptied the account; the money is long gone.

He told the police that he only knew those he passed the money to by nicknames. Would you lend your bank account details to someone you hardly knew? Me neither.

If you were a gang intent on fleecing an old lady for her life savings would you entrust £115,000 of your ill-gotten gains to someone you barely knew? I don't think so.

Besides the £115,000 sent by electronic transfer, my mother handed over a total of more than £150,000 in cash in payments to these thugs who regularly called at her home. The cash withdrawals from branches of NatWest in Penarth and Barry - £18,000 here, £7,000 there, and so on over a period of months, stopped only when she was admitted to hospital last September. She never came home.

My mother was a sensible, cautious woman who was prudent before Gordon Brown learned to spell the word.

She was a private person and was deeply ashamed of being conned in this way. She would not have appreciated this blog post or wanted others to know what she went through. It is very painful for me to have to re-live the events of last year. But if my Mum could fall for it, then so could yours.

Sean White, who has shown zero remorse, is behind bars but the villains who used his bank account are still out there, free to target other vulnerable old people.
Today, at  Cardiff Crown Court, I listened as White's barrister told Cardiff Crown Court how he'd played only a minor part in what the lawyer admitted was the systematic swindling of an old lady.
We heard about White's relationship problems, his child, his business failure, his own housing difficulties. There was just one word missing from the plea of mitigation.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Think Plaid. Think London?

There's new evidence that a catch-all "London" has replaced "slap in the face" and "snub to Wales" as Plaid Cymru's campaign slogan of choice.

A press release from Hywel Williams MP uses the L-word no fewer than seven times, more often than the word "Wales".

Google "Plaid Cymru" and "London" and you get far more suggestions than you would googling "slap in the face" or "snub to Wales". They really are so last decade.

The strategy appears to be to try to convince voters that everything done at Westminster is purely for the good of rich people in the UK capital, a nationalist version of class war.

The Hywel Williams press release is peppered with references to "Labour in London", "cuts imposed on the Welsh Government by London" and "bosses in London".

Another press release from the party, announcing their line-up of candidates, arrived this afternoon with no fewer than five L-words in its three paragraphs.

Plaid's honorary president, Dafydd Wigley, once upset a few people by referring to "gin-soaked Surrey" (to compare, replace Surrey with any Welsh location and stand by your inbox). Plaid Cymru insist they are not anti-English - "some of my best friends are English" as Elfyn Llwyd told the BBC News Channel recently.

To demonstrate the L-word strategy is not an anti-English pitch, Hywel Williams highlights another area of the UK where public spending is higher than Plaid would apparently like.

"Public spending in England and Scotland outstripped Wales during the ‘good times’ while, under the Barnett Formula, Wales loses out on hundreds of millions of pounds a year."

Scottish public spending outstripping Wales? The SNP, who form part of a single parliamentary party at Westminster, will be thrilled with this contribution to their combined negotiating strength should there be a hung Parliament.

Time's Up

I could feel the wings of history on my tweets. The last Welsh Question Time at Westminster before the general election featured farewell appearances from MPs on both sides of the chamber.

If it was to be Peter Hain's last Question Time appearance as Secretary of State then he could not have wished for some softer questions to smooth him on his way.

Tom Watson kicked off with a penetrating "Can my right honourable friend assure me that he has no plans to axe or cut tax credits?" which prompted Peter Hain to claim there is a Tory "sword of Damocles" hanging over tax credits.

Sian James put him on the spot with her follow-up: "Can the Minister tell me how many families in total have benefited through the policies of this Government on this important issue?"

Mr Hain looked pleased although hardly surprised to be asked a question that allowed him to claim that the Conservatives would axe free school breakfasts.

Betty Williams wanted to know whether he agreed with her constituents that "the tax credit system is certainly not a gimmick?" Tough one, that.

Tory Peter Bone, late of Islwyn but now of Wellingborough, wanted to know how many constituents Mr Hain had had in tears in his office because of the tax credit system.

Mr Hain told him there were people in his constituency office in tears about the threat to their tax credits, although the sight of people in Neath weeping over an opposition party's manifesto is as yet uncorroborated.

There was barely a dry eye in the House as Ministers paid tribute to three Labour MPs taking part in their last Question Time - Betty Williams, Martyn Jones and Don Touhig.

Plaid Cymru's Adam Price bowed out with: "Why is it right for an ENGLISH Minister to sit as judge and jury on the question of bilingual juries?"

The shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan accused Peter Hain of delaying preparations for a referendum on Welsh Assembly powers until it could be taken by an in-coming Conservative government?

It may be a rare example of an in-coming Minister hoping that Labour will take a decision before it arrives in office, allowing Cheryl Gillan to remain on the fence ("neutral") on an issue that divides her party more than most.

Peter Hain told MPs: "This is a matter for consideration after the general election. All the parties agree with that."

And that was more or less that. Historic or otherwise, it was probably an accurate rehearsal of the campaign to come.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

London calling

As any pantomime-goer will tell you, the streets of London are paved with gold.

Some politicians will tell you that gold grows on trees across the English capital and is then handed on a plate to millionaire City bankers thanks to the collusion of London politicians in London-based parties, such as those well-known cockneys Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

A press release from Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams on the 2012 Olympics arrives today: "London politicians have admitted that it is a scam to use public money to regenerate one of Europe's richest cities."

He may have a point about Olympics spending not benefitting Wales, but is London really one of Europe's richest cities? It certainly contains some of Europe's richest people, but unemployment here is higher than in Wales (9.1 per cent compared to 8.6 per cent) and no fewer than 41 per cent of London's children are growing up in poverty after the UK capital's huge housing costs are considered.

The average price of a London property - £427,987 - may be more than twice as great as that of its Welsh equivalent - £161,576 - but Londoners still have to find a way to pay for their homes.

London's Evening Standard newspaper has just devoted a full week to an in-depth examination of the issue of poverty on its doorstep in a city home to some of the greatest inequalities you will find anywhere.

Incidentally, if, as Sir Jon Shortridge suggests, Wales is poor because it has been governed from England for too long, how do we explain economic fortunes in the poorest London boroughs?

London Mayor Boris Johnson gave a subdued (for him) interview to Dragon's Eye last week, warning against cutting spending in London, but it was enough to spark criticism from Plaid Cymru AM Chris Franks:

"These comments by Boris Johnson show that the Tories simply don’t care that Wales is being severely underfunded. They have consistently refused to say what they would do about our dire funding situation, and now it turns out they want to give more money to the richest region of England."

"London" is an easy label to prefix to any press release that aims to stoke up resentment among Welsh voters, particularly when included alongside "bankers" and other pantomime villains. It has subtly begun to replace "snub" and "slap in the face" in party propaganda.
Perhaps it's a delayed response to the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone's view of another major project (of questionable benefit to Wales): "We need Crossrail to keep London's economy ticking over so that we can continue to pay for the Scottish to live the lifestyle to which they are accustomed."
Statistics on London poverty may bore the pants off you if you live in Wales - probably if you live in London too - but they illustrate just how difficult it will be to reform the way the public spending cake is divided up.
David Cameron has been hinting of changes to the Barnett formula, which decides 53 per cent of public spending in Wales, for some time but always stops shy of promising action.
Two years ago, he told The Herald, Glasgow the formula was coming to the end of its days but he was wary of stoking an English grievance about it: "I want this to happen in a consensual, sensible, non-inflammatory way and that's why I've been so reticent about it."
For all the hints of commissions to look at it under a Tory government, he warned in last Friday's Western Mail that there was no pot of gold that would follow the scrapping of the formula.
Tweaking the formula to benefit Wales could deliver political benefits at relatively little financial cost for a Conservative UK government.  The Tories could bite the bullet and cut Scottish spending disproportionately as soon as they take office, although that would not sit well with being a "party of the Union".
Lord Barnett is a sprightly 86. I wouldn't bet against him out-living his formula.

Biteback bitten by unusual suspect?

Have I made Lord Ashcroft even richer?

This disturbing thought has cost me some sleep since I attended a book launch for Paul Flynn's memoirs, held in the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House.

The Unusual Suspect is published by Biteback Publishing, in which the billionaire deputy Tory chairman has a 25 per cent share.

One consolation, if I have added to his fortune by buying a copy, is that given his promise to give up his "non-dom" status, he will at least pay tax on the profits.

Paul Flynn himself is not not allowing his choice of publisher to influence his views. There is one less than flattering reference to "possibly illegal" donations from Lord Ashcroft in the book. (It was written before the donations were cleared by the Electoral Commission).

There is also this reference to the Ashcroft affair and the Public Administration Select Committee from the Flynn blog: "Why was Ashcroft rejected twice for a peerage? What did Hague promise in order to get minds changed? It is rare for anyone to reject a summons to appear before a Select Committee. Lord Ashcroft has an invitation in the post.

"David Cameron has not buried this ugly episode. The full truth has not yet been prised out of them. So far it's the misty truth, he half-truth and none of the whole truth."

The book launch itself was a jolly affair, despite the clash with a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

On first inspection, The Unusual Suspect is a good read too, despite a couple of potentially embarrassing references to me within its pages.

The book gives an interesting insight into the way political parties sometimes stitch up safe seats for favoured candidates, a manoeuvre that has sometimes involved a peerage for MPs who agree to retire at the last minute.

The Westminster rumour mill this time is that peerages are only guaranteed for those MPs who step down after the election has been called - a timetable that would allow Labour's national executive to select constituency candidates.

Flynn has just turned 75 but you will have a long wait to see Lord Flynn of Newport. He says he's "more angry and enthusiastic" than ever before and is standing in the election.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

If you can't stand the heat....

One of the many joys of multi-channel television is that you are never too far away from a showing of the cult food show, Come Dine With Me.

For those of you who may have missed it, the programme involves four or five amateur chefs competing against each other hosting a dinner party for the other contestants. Each competitor then rates the host's performance with the winner winning a £1,000 cash prize.

Having made several celebrity programmes, for charidee, the programme's makers have been trying to put together a political version.

Sadly, one of their potential cast has declined the invitation. CDWM viewers will be deprived of Peter Hain's culinary skills, not to mention a glimpse into what is already quite a well-known kitchen.

Aides decided the Welsh Secretary was too busy to clear his diary for the week, denying us a glimpse of Hain cuisine (101 ways with Ryvita?).

Older viewers will remember the Neath MP's interview with Aga Magazsine: "At first I was a bit sceptical about the Aga.

"I thought it was a great big lump. But now I actually think it's fantastic. We found food cooked on the electric cooker tasted very second class."

There's no news yet on whether other politicians are prepared to risk getting their fingers burnt.

Although the political version would have been for charidee, the e-mail to potential participants apparently mentioned a fee of £3,000 per amateur chef. Worth keeping an eye on the Commons Register of Members' Interests to see how takes up the invitation.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Five facts from the Welsh Tory conference

1. Party members gave a standing ovation to a video - before it started. I think they were expecting DC in person.

2. The Tories would rename the Wales Office the Welsh Office - back to the future and a spending commitment unless they keep the existing signs on Gwydyr House.

3. David Cameron's hailed a war on waste as the party's European group offered all free mints, chocolate and writing pads bearing the Tory logo.

4. Welsh Tory MEP Kay Swinburne is the Queen of Hearts in a pack of cards featuring Euro-MPs - another freebie on offer.

5. The big question for the media - are chairmen Eric Pickles and Lyndon Jones twins or Russian dolls? Open up Eric and find Lyndon inside. Eric says they are the Mitchell brothers of British politics - which makes Cheryl Gillan Peggy Mitchell.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Reluctant MPs offered escape route

MPs who don't turn up for committee meetings could get the boot under plans endorsed by several select committee chairs.

Hywel Francis, who chairs the Welsh affairs committee, has put his name to a move that would allow chairs to dump members who turn up for fewer than 60 per cent of meetings.

Should this be implemented, fewer than half of the current Welsh affairs membership would survive. David Davies, Nia Griffith, Sian James, Martyn Jones, Albert Owen and Mark Pritchard would be made to walk the plank.

Some of these already sit on more than one committee and might welcome a discharge.

The new barely quorate committee would comprise Hywel Francis, Mark Williams, David Jones, Hywel Williams and Alun Michael.

Of course, any mass cull would possibly be followed by a stampede of MPs eager to join the main committee for holding Welsh Ministers to account here.

Or maybe not. Dr Francis tells me: "Many people are reluctant members. Parties put people on to make up the numbers."

The issue is being discussed by the liaison committee, made up of committee chairs.

Sean White: estate agent & money launderer

You may or may not have read today's Daily Mirror. I will blog properly about this estate agent after sentencing but I hope the case highlights the need for vulnerable people to take care when faced with shysters engaged in doorstep crime and their accomplices. There are some evil people out there.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Gordon Brown celebrates St David's Day

How are you celebrating St David's Day?

The House of Lords has been debating whether March 1 should become a public holiday.

Government spokesman Lord Davies of Oldham, who himself has Welsh roots, deflected calls for a day off on St David's Day:

"The decision is quite clear. The Scots decided they would opt for St Andrew's Day, the Welsh Assembly Government has not made as yet a bid in the present programme for a public holiday for St David's Day. Of course, if such a bid comes forward, we will consider it."

Labour activist Sally Bercow (Mrs Speaker) likes the idea of a day off, but Labour have argued that an extra bank holiday would cost industry dear. It is, as I understand it, still official policy for their coalition partners in Cardiff Bay, Plaid Cymru. Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly present it as party policy between elections but it seldom reaches the status of a manifesto commitment.

Gordon Brown has his own take on what we get up to on St David's Day: "I know that today, from Bangor to Builth Wells and beyond, you will be celebrating your nation and its achievements in many ways - by attending Eisteddfods, dressing your children in national costume or by taking part in parades."

We must look forward to the Prime Minister's take on St Andrew's Day, should he still be in Downing Street by then. In the meantime, I must dash - got to rush home and dress the kids in national costume before the eisteddfod starts.

No spitting please

Handy advice from the Welsh Assembly Government's new welcome pack for newcomers to Wales: "Do not throw litter on the floor, or spit on the floor in public places, if you need to sneeze or blow your nose you should use a tissue."

The Welsh, of course, never, ever throw litter on the floor, even outside a 24-hour McDonald's in Swansea:

The Assembly Government also advises:

"British / Welsh people are generally reserved and well mannered. Neighbours great each other politely saying 'Good Morning / Good Afternoon' or 'Bore Da / Prynhawn Da' in Welsh, and often shake hands. In the UK, people say 'please', 'thank you' and 'excuse me' when in public places, or when receiving or paying for a service."

Boris flies the flag

London Mayor Boris Johnson is flying the dragon from City Hall in London today. He's also due to make the toast to the Welsh in London Dewi Sant at a reception in the Guildhall later.

Rumour has it he may be using some of the Welsh he picked up during his unsuccessful campaign in Clwyd South in 1997. Given that as he put it, he fought Clwyd South and Clwyd South fought back, his vocabulary this evening should be interesting.

We were poor.....but happy

It was interesting to learn from the front page of today's Western Mail that the Welsh Assembly Government is considering measuring the happiness of the nation.

The idea of general well-being rather than pure economic growth as a policy goal has become increasingly fashionable in recent years.

This is partly because although western societies are materially far richer than we were 50 years ago, we are no happier. Indeed, stress and mental illness have often increased.

David Cameron was very keen on the idea, until the global economic crisis intervened to suggest even in the West we no longer live in a post-material world. The Welsh Conservatives have yet to claim credit for converting the Labour/Plaid Assembly Government into Cameroons.

GWB rather than GDP or GVA has obvious attractions to Welsh politicians, whose stated aims to narrow the economic gap with England have, to put it politely, yet to deliver.

Some of the most fascinating political books I've read during the last year have been written on this very subject. I'd recommend (Lord) Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Affluenza by Oliver James.

Layard argues that happiness should be a central policy goal and presents evidence that less unequal societies are not just fairer but happier. He calls for redistribution from rich to poor through higher taxes - "We can now show scientifically that an extra pound is worth more in happiness to a poor person than to someone who is richer."

Oliver James attributes the "affluenza" virus - effectively status anxiety - to an obsession with wealth that has left more of us unhappy. He suggests new policy goals, including one or two radical policies designed to get politicians thinking differently.

One of his ideas is that would-be MPs should spend some time looking after children aged under three before going into Parliament.

I'd be very happy to volunteer my two-year-old son for this novel experiment, although I'd probably prime him with a couple of verbal hand grenades to keep the politicians on their toes.

"I want to live in a posh house"

Commons Speaker John Bercow took delivery of some St David's Day daffodils from the children of Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain this morning.

Mr Speaker introduced himself to the children with an informal "hello, I'm John" before taking them on a tour of Speaker's House.

He told BBC Wales he would be wearing a daffodil in the Speaker's chair in the Commons this afternoon - after reading a lesson at the traditional St David's Day service in the chapel in the Commons crypt.

One of the schoolboys was impressed but a tad cheesed off to discover that the three young Bercow children live in Speaker's House. He told his classmates: "It's not fair - I want to live in a posh house".

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Brown - I didn't kill Archie Mitchell

Greetings from Swanea, where a Labour conference fringe breakfast on the Barnett formula is barely half an hour away.

In other news, Gordon Brown's shorter-than-usual speech yesterday went down well and, as far as I can tell, he didn't lose his temper with anyone while west of Offa's Dyke.

(Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan says the temper thing is down to the PM not getting enough sleep. Mr Morgan had a decent quip in his conference speech about how while his MP wife is out knocking on doors, he's at home hanging doors.).

There was one reference in the Brown speech to the bullying allegations: "The only thing I haven’t been accused of recently is killing Archie Mitchell in The EastEnders (sic). For the press here: I promise you, I didn’t even lay a finger on him.”

So Gordon Brown is innocent, ok? A nice joke, although only someone who doesn't know much about life in Albert Square would refer to "The EastEnders".

Earlier, the PM dropped in at a bungalow in Llanelli, for a "home visit" - a new campaign device where he gets to meet community activists, who then presumably pass on by word-of-mouth their improved views on the leader.

In Llanelli, those assembled included councillors, someone from the Asda Foundation (Llanelli shoppers are very generous apparently), an expert on breast cancer and a brain surgeon.

It took nine seconds from entering Sharren Davies's conservatory for Mr Brown to bring up Wales's Six Nations defeat against France the previous evening. Don't mention the score - how to enter a room and engulf it in gloom, lesson one.

But the first person with whom he raised the rugby didn't matter at all - he was English. Perhaps Gordon Brown's luck is finally changing.

Must dash - I can smell my Barnett breakfast cooking.

Big Mac and fries to throw - Swansea, Sunday AM

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Cole War latest: Ashley flies peacekeeper in

Never let it be said that this blog is not at the cutting edge of popular culture, as Cheryl and Ashley's problems (temporarily) replace the Barnett formula as the number one topic of conversation across the land.

He's eased Labour divisions over devolution in Wales, helped broker a political settlement in Northern Ireland, and made his name trying to bring black and white together in South Africa, so Peter Hain would appear a natural choice to mediate the Cole family's current difficulties.

As an added bonus, the Welsh Secretary's experience facing regular criticism from a woman named Cheryl may also strike a chord with the Chelsea left-back.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Lib Dems - a cock-up, not a conspiracy

Hello. Welcome back. I return refreshed from a half-term break to discover that more tensions have emerged between Liberal Democrats at either end of the M4.

During the past year, Welsh Lib Dems have seen senior party figures at Westminster call for the scrapping of a massive defence investment and try to reduce the number of Welsh MPs by 30 per cent.

Now several senior Lib Dem MPs have signed up to a move to block further devolution to Wales, this time in the area of home education.

A Tory MP, Graham Stuart, tabled an amendment to a new law going through Parliament, an amendment that would have deleted a clause in the Bill that would give the Assembly the power to pass laws on home education in Wales.

Six Lib Dem MPs, including the party's education spokesman, David Laws, signed Mr Stuart's amendment, despite the Lib Dems claiming to be in favour of greater powers for Wales.

Cock-up or conspiracy? Jenny Randerson, the party's education spokeswoman in the Welsh Assembly, says: "My colleagues in Westminster subscribed to this amendment in error and will be removing their names from this Tory amendment. David Laws, the Lib Dem education spokesperson will, during the debate, argue in favour of devolving these powers to Wales.
“The Liberal Democrats remain committed to furthering Welsh devolution and they will vote against this amendment if it is called.”
An easy mistake. Perhaps ordinary voters simply don't understand just how easy it is for politicians to say one thing and then sign up to the opposite. The more charitable explanation is that there was some confusion over whether, having removed English powers from the Bill, you could still include powers for Wales.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Pre-election tension and Gordon's guarantee

You may well have noticed that yesterday's historic vote in Cardiff Bay to allow the people to have a vote on the Welsh Assembly's powers failed to register during Question Time at Westminster today.

I was too busy to notice whether this oversight led to gasps in the public gallery, a gallery still recovering from Sir Paul McCartney's appearance to watch last night's debate on voting systems.

Sir Paul is himself now doubtless composing a ditty to mark the Alternative Vote Referendum - or maybe not.

Perhaps it was the imminence of the general election, but MPs confined themselves to issues such as the economy and jobs rather than constitutional affairs during the 30 minutes they get each month to question the Secretary of State for Wales.

Perhaps the MPs took the Plaid Cymru line (before yesterday's debate) that a referendum is a "tidying-up exercise" rather than today's Plaid line that the 53-0 vote was a major constitutional event.

Peter Hain did his best to distract attention from #triggertuesday by comparing Wales with Rwanda to make his point that Wales remains a relatively wealthy country.

The 30 minutes MPs get to question Gordon Brown were largely devoted to a very loud shouting match about how to care for elderly people in England.

The Prime Minister tried to attack the Conservatives for failing to match Labour "guarantees" on NHS treatment (again in England).

Mr Brown promised a modern health service with "personalised services available to people and tailored to their needs."

He then told David Cameron: "I cannot for the life of me understand why the Conservative party is rejecting the cancer guarantee that would allow people to see a specialist within two weeks. I believe that that challenges its very commitment to the health service."

Does Gordon Brown believe that any party that doesn't apply the cancer guarantee has a dubious commitment to the health service?

He may need to be cautious with his pre-election rhetoric lest others highlight a Labour-led administration in Cardiff that, as far as I know, won't operate the same enforceable guarantee.

But enough excitement for one week. MPs are off until February 22 - and so am I. Bye for now.

Hain puts Wales on the map

Wales is well-used to being compared to deprived parts of the UK in the competitive poverty stakes but now it appears the comparison has gone worldwide.

Secretary of State Peter Hain compared Wales with Rwanda in the Commons today while insisting Wales is still a wealthy country.

He told Tory MP David Jones: "Do you not agree, that compared with Rwanda and most countries in the rest of the world - most countries in the rest of the world is the point I was making if you'd not chosen to take that quote out of context - that Wales is indeed still a wealthy country?"

According to UN statistics, in 2005 77 per cent of Rwanda's population lived below the international poverty line of 80 pence a day, less than seven per cent of the population have a telephone and just one per cent are internet users.

Wales has also escaped the genocide and civil war that hit Rwanda in the early 1990s.

What Peter Hain said is, of course, true - Wales is a relatively wealthy country - but many would regard the comparison between with Rwanda as meaningless - unless, of course, he knows something about the Welsh economy that we don't.

UPDATE 1620: Peter Hain statement:

"Frankly, I could have chosen my words more carefully. Of course no one is suggesting that Wales has ever suffered from poverty on the same scale as in Africa.
"My point was that home repossessions and job losses in Wales are, thankfully, at a much lower level than under the disastrous recessions of the 1980s and 1990s when Conservative Governments were in power."

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Pro-active holding patterns and stakeholders

MPs on the Welsh affairs select committee take pride in working through two languages. Today they heard evidence in a third that is, fortunately, spoken by very few people.

Committee chairman Hywel Francis prompted the introduction of this new language by asking the executive director of the Legal Services Commission, the body that looks after legal aid, what decisions had been taken about the future of the LSC's office.

This was Phil Lambert's reply: "It is fair to say we are in something of a holding pattern since the earlier meetings for a number of reasons but I think that is in terms of pro-active actions that we are taking.

"What we are certainly not in a holding pattern for is engagement consultations and liaison with stakeholders."
All translations gratefully received.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Lib Dem drama latest

UPDATE: A paramedic has come forward to jog Mick Bates' memory - this from Radio Wales News.

He has now been relieved of his frontbench duties after a paramedic claimed he was physically assaulted by him. The medic, who is planning to press charges against Mr Bates, says he was punched in the chest and that the police were called to give Mr Bates a verbal warning.

According to the paramedic, Mr Bates delivered a tirade of verbal abuse, and punched him in the chest while he was trying to administer first aid. A police officer was called into the ambulance to give Mr Bates a warning but he was not arrested. The paramedic says that the abusive behaviour continued at the accident and emergency department, where he was kept under observation by security. The Liberal Democrats say they're investigating.

Mick Bates has previously questioned NHS executives about the problems caused by violence and aggression to staff.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Lib Dems turn drama into a story

Spend 48 hours with the Liberal Democrats, as I have just done, and you learn why they bang on about 'fairness' so much.

A guessing game to identify the Welsh Assembly Member to make it onto the front page of today's Wales on Sunday would be unlikely to throw up the name of Mick Bates.

But the Montgomeryshire AM awoke today to find himself accused by someone anonymous of doing
something he could not remember doing.

What's not disputed is that Mick Bates was taken by ambulance to hospital on January 19 after a night out in Cardiff during which liquid refreshment was taken.

He had a serious head wound which required treatment. He cannot remember anything else, particularly whether in a concussed state he was verbally abusive to hospital staff.

Colleagues say he behaved oddly during the following 48 hours but, more than two weeks later no-one has contacted him about any alleged complaint.

He did turn up at the Welsh Lib Dem conference today, despite a spokesman insisting he would not. He was there long enough to raise sponsorship for his wife's Inca Trail charity trek and promise us a statement on camera along the lines of he was sorry if he'd done something wrong.

Then he was hugged by Kirsty Williams and disappeared into a meeting with her and senior party officials.

He then left the Grand Theatre by a rear exit without talking to hacks - always a bad move - and we were told he would not take part in a fringe meeting on fuel poverty.

You don't need to be Woodward & Bernstein to sense a potential story here, particularly in the absence of obvious alternatives.

It might not be fair to someone widely viewed as a gentle giant but life's not fair, as Nick Clegg told his troops yesterday. The Lib Dems' crisis management had helped turn a drama into something worse than a crisis - a story.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Peter's friends and a sell-out

As Labour donors prepare to break bread with the Welsh political and rugby establishment (well, one or two of them), the Liberal Democrats are gearing up for their own fund-raising conference in Swansea.

Keen readers of this blog, both of you, will remember how the Lib Dems offered companies the chance to sponsor a reception hosted by the Welsh Assembly Member Peter Black. This will jog your memory.

Sadly, I can reveal that, despite the knockdown price of £800 for the whole reception - roughly the cost of a single main course with Welsh Labour - there was a slight shortage of blue-chip companies, or indeed fish-and-chip companies, prepared to sponsor the bash. It won't now take place.

Peter himself tells me: "I asked and was told that there were no offers for the reception that was advertised in my name."

So the rest of us will just have to make alternative plans - as if being bumped off the guest list for Katie and Alex's wedding was not enough of a blow for one week.

The Lib Dems tell me that despite their failure to sell Peter's party, their £45-a-head conference dinner is sold out.

The guest speaker is Evan Harris MP who, I am told by the Lib Dems, is "very, very funny."

Perhaps it's the way he tells them. Swansea beckons. See you at Paddington.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Lib Dems don't like Mondays

You may have noticed how MPs hit the headlines recently by apparently spending fewer days at Westminster - 139 - in a parliamentary year than for many a day.

I pondered the subject on a quiet day recently with a passing Tory backbencher who denied there was a secret agreement between the major parties to allow their MPs to campaign in their constituencies at the beginning and end of the week.

MPs are not the only professional politicians who use "constituency days" to further their (and their party's) re-election prospects.

Here's a Facebook entry for the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, dated January 18:

The Mark in question is Mark Williams, Lib Dem MP for Ceredigion, whose own Facebook entries reveal Mondays spent trying to get re-elected.

I did ask him: "Shouldn't you have been at work?"

His reply: "A different kind of work, I hasten to add only part of Mondays."

Kirsty Williams spent Monday, January 25 campaigning in Builth, in her own constituency, which may have helped the election chances of the deputy leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, local MP Roger Williams.

Perhaps the events were part of a Williams family re-union, although so far as I know the three are not related.

Meeting people in the real world must be a good thing for politicians although perhaps describing it as "campaigning" is not the most tactful choice of words.

Headlines you'll never read: Don Touhig AM

Sometimes the least surprising answers are the most fun.

My colleague Bethan James asked the retiring Don Touhig, not someone known for his enthusiasm for the Welsh Assembly, whether his departure from the Commons was linked to ambitions elsewhere - in Cardiff Bay?

There follows an audible intake of breath from said MP and an answer that is followed by a chuckle: "I don't think so, I mean it is a, er, no I have enjoyed being here, it has been a great privilege to serve but I have no plans or ambitions to go to the Welsh Assembly."

Touhig rules out Assembly role - hold the front page on that one.

Could his political ambitions lie closer to home, perhaps in the House of Lords where many former Labour Ministers and prime ministerial friends end up? Lord Touhig of Islwyn, perhaps?
"I don't think so" says a laughing MP. So if you're offered a peerage would you accept it?

Don Touhig: "I wouldn't be offered a peerage I shouldn't think.".

Is it just me, or was he ever so slightly blushing slightly during that final answer?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Referendum(s) fever - "pretty bloody confusing"

You wait years for referendum fever to take off and then two come along at once.

I'll leave the Alternative Vote details to those with more time on their hands, but I ventured into the Welsh referendum date by asking a question at a Plaid Cymru Westminster news conference.

When, I asked Plaid's parliamentary leader, would the next Welsh referendum - on increasing the Assembly's powers - be?

Elfyn Llwyd said: "I don't think it is going to be in May [2011], it is either going to be in October or March. At the present time my suspicion is October."

Mr Llwyd said First Minister Carwyn Jones and his Plaid deputy Ieuan Wyn Jones had held a press conference in Cardiff today at which they were not talking dates.

"The Conservatives in the National Assembly are adamant that they don't want it on the same day as the election in May.

"And frankly, there is some sense in that because while parties might be rowing the same boat on the referendum they are also at each others' throats getting seats so it's going to be pretty bloody confusing."

"I don't think anyone wants to be hemmed in by the Tories and giving in to their demands but their demand is that they would be happy to vote for the trigger provided it was explicitly ruled out that there would be something in May.

"In reality it is ruled out, all but, although no guarantees can be given. It is simply not tenable" {to hold a referendum on election day}"

He added: "My guess is October, if not March."

It's fair to say that the reporting of those remarks has led to a minor, although hopefully temporary, eruption on the Elfynometer.

Perhaps I'll stick to less controversial subjects in future; tomorrow, it's back to the Iraq Inquiry.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Austerity bites: name that AM

This week's mystery photo features the generous tip offered by a Welsh Assembly member during a pre-Christmas visit to a Cardiff pizza restaurant.

Let's hope the AM concerned kept the receipt.

Return to sender?

David Cameron may be months away from Downing Street but he has already done his bit for the arts. The airbrushed Cameron posters have unleashed a wave of creativity ultimately paid for by Tory donors.

Some in the blogosphere would deny Welsh graffiti artists the chance to deface posters in devolved areas.

The first poster message may strictly be true as the Tories see it but the argument goes along the lines that health is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, so this poster should not be put up in Wales: an argument was put to Mr Cameron himself by "Grangetown Paul" during his recent online chat at the Media Wales multi-media nerve centre in Cardiff.

This was the would-be PM's response: "The posters we have put up are a strong and positive message which is a bit of a contrast with our opponents. The decisions about health spending at Westminster do have an important impact on Wales because of the operation of the Barnett Formula and so our decision to protect the NHS will have benefits in Wales."

The NHS may be devolved, although I would guess that it will still be an election issue for many voters in Wales when they choose a new UK Government this year.

Perhaps the real significance of the Cameron response is that Tories who hope or expect their leader to change the Barnett formula, which dictates slightly more than half of all public spending in Wales, may have a long wait. Worth remembering next time someone wearing a blue rosette tries to tell you that a Conservative government would divert spending from England to Wales.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Ministers cool the political temperature

Those eco-warriors at the Wales Office have managed to cut their carbon emissions by an impressive 85 per cent during the last decade.

It sounds dramatic, and is not due, apparently, to the fact that the department handed over all its executive powers to the Welsh Assembly in 1999.

My mole in Gwydyr House, its Whitehall home, tells me: "I've been told that because we are such a small office, little things that we can do to reduce our footprint have a disproportionate impact."

It's true that the Wales Office didn't even have a state-subsidised airline to cancel. Secretary of State Peter Hain has long-believed in a red-green agenda, although the impact of his rooftop solar panels is rather undermined by his preference for cooking on an Aga and a fondness for Formula1.

Perhaps junior Minister Wayne David got a warm hand-knitted sweater for Christmas that allowed him to turn down the office thermostat?

Possibly, although this photograph suggests Mr Hain got there first. The Wales Office says:  "We've done two things: moved to the Whitehall Distribution System for our heating (a centralised heating system for buildings in Whitehall), and turned off the heating at weekends and other periods when the office was closed."

You may wonder why the building was heated while empty anyway, but I'm not bright enough to answer that one.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

No room for complacency?

Political statements risk appearing meaingless unless you can imagine the direct opposite being spouted with conviction.

A One Wales Government may make sense as a political slogan but I've yet to discover a Two or Three Wales Government alternative on offer to the voters.

The All Wales Convention may have done what it said on the tin, but there wouldn't really be many votes in a Half Wales Convention.

So when a politician seeks your vote on the basis of there being no room for complacency, do look hard for another insisting there's plenty of room for the same.

The Welsh Conservatives have the phrase on their function keys as surely as Plaid Cymru use "slap in the face" and "snub to Wales".

So what did the party's leader in the Welsh Assembly make of their latest electoral success? Nick Bourne was delighted, but there was "no room for complacency".

His considered verdict a week later remained the same.

What did Professor Bourne make of a recent opinion poll? You can find the answer here - and, yes, the c-word does feature (although of course there is no room for it).

The shadow Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, was singing from the same hymn sheet when she received yesterday's jobless figures. Funnily enough, she gave an identical reaction to last August's figures.

And this afternoon, the party's Assembly Member Angela Burns has warned that, you've guessed it, there's "no room for complacency" over jobs in her constituency.

Wouldn't it be re-assuring, just the once, if a politician reacted to some news with a defiant message to camera along the lines of "there's plenty of room for complacency here, I'm off down the pub".

Think different: think slavery

The House of Commons chamber has virtually emptied as MPs open a debate on competitiveness in the food industry - the power of supermarkets and so on.

Perhaps some the 600 or so MPs absent are heading for the Queen Elizabeth conference Centre to watch Jack Straw give evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

While we wait for Mr Straw to explain his role in the war, it's time once again to dip into the Plaid Cymru handbook.

The fundraising chapter is illuminating. Here are a few highlights:

"A new member not only means a potential new activist but also a new source of income, especially if you recruit them on direct debit."

If you want a personal visit from a Plaid candidate, make sure you cough up bigtime. "Send a personalised thank you letter from the candidate as soon as the donation is received. If it is a substantial donation the candidates should make contact via a phone call or a personal visit."

The handbook offers useful advice to Plaid candidates on how to organise a raffle.

There is also the softly-softly approach: "The next time you are lying the garden enjoying the summer sunshine - remember this is the perfect time for a Plaid Cymru BBQ! Ask all your friends, neighbours and Plaid Cymru members to come around with a bottle of their favourite tipple and charge them £5 to enjoy the products of your culinary expertise."

Or: "An alternative way of raising funds might be to hold a cheese and wine themed well as selling tickets at £3 you can charge £1 for every glass of wine."

Then there's "exotic food evenings" - "a group of around six people take it in turns to cook an exotic meal for each other (Spanish, Mexican etc)". As if cheese and wine evenings were not exotic enough (!), Plaid candidates are told this is "cheaper than a posh restaurant".

There is an alternative - the "slave auction" with members putting themselves up for auction. "The 'slave' will have stated in advance what they are willing to do (such as cut the grass, or paint a room etc) and the other members bit for them."

Worth remembering next time you're faced with a full nappy and wonder whether Elfyn Llwyd's time is within your bidding range.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Question Time

Based at Westminster, I tend to steer clear of the All Wales Convention and referendums on the Welsh Assembly's powers as they are so well covered elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Indeed, some of the posts I read on the convention's recent report were longer than the report itself.

But today the issue arrived in the House of Lords. Its Constitution Committee has been conducting an inquiry into referendums.

Daran Hill, lobbyist/political consultant/commentator from Postif Politics raised the issue of the question that would be put in any referendum on Welsh Assembly powers.

"In 1997 there was a substantial constitutional issue that could be easily expressed ...I'm rather nervous about how the question will be phrased. Essentially, what you will be asking is do you want to go from part 3 to part 4 of the Government of Wales Act - how might you ask that?

" I think that improving a referendum can be done by offering more context , rather than placing a simple question before the public. If, for example, in the 1997 experience there had been a paragraph that said 'if you vote yes it will mean this , it will not mean independence but it will mean establishing an Assembly'.

"I say this knowing that the form of words would need to negotiated, involving the Electoral Commission and maybe both sides of the campaign too.

"But, I think that an explanatory paragraph can add real value and I say this particularly from the context of the future Welsh referendum which is likely to happen in the next 18 months , where it is about moving from one part of Act to another and I think that just posing one question on its own without context that seeks to explain what powers are already held by the Assembly and what the net effect would undermine the asking of the question, I think".

Mr Hill didn't suggest a precise question, but he is right that the wording can influence the result. A ballot paper that asked voters: "Do you want laws for Wales made by patriotic Welshmen and women of goodwill in Cardiff or by a bunch of toffs in London, yes the same ones who rip you off through the Barnett formula?" would, I dare to suggest, be likely to produce only one answer.

On the other hand, "Do you want to give the political establishment a kicking without risking a change of government or great personal hardship" might secure another verdict.

Alternative suggestions welcome.

Think Different: the plot thickens

The hunt for the origins of Plaid Cymru's election slogan has taken a new twist.

Welsh Assembly Member Nerys Evans told that the party had not stolen it from megarich loadsalawyers corporation Apple but from Plaid's sister party, the SNP.

Or, as she put it the SNP have been using something similar and Plaid got their idea from them.

A search of the SNP's website reveals no trace of the said slogan. Can anyone help clear up the mystery?

Hand-in-hand or foot-in-mouth?

An update from Peter Black AM on the Liberal Democrats' plans to axe 30 per cent of Welsh MPs:

Mr Black has just told the BBC's Phil Parry on "This goes hand-in-hand with a full Parliament for Wales."

If that is the case, it's slightly strange that the Lib Dems have been trying to amend legislation before the Commons now - long before any "full Parliament for Wales" will be up and running.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Lib Dems sharpen their axe for MPs

If you've ever wondered where the axe would fall under Lib Dem plans to slash the number of MPs - and which of us has not lost sleep over it? - then help is at hand.

The party has published details of its plans to cut the House of Commons by 133 or 21 per cent (slightly fewer than their policy of a cut of 150). The cuts are rather more severe in Wales, where the number of MPs would be cut by 30 per cent, from 40 to 28.

These 28 would sit for eight multi-member constituencies and be elected under the single transferable vote system.
The new constiuencies are named after the old (1974) county council boundaries. Gwynedd (to include Anglesey) would have two seats, Clwyd would have four, Powys would keep its existing two seats (can't think why the Lib Dems thought of that).

Dyfed would have four seats, West Glamorgan three, Mid Glamorgan four, and South Glamorgan four. Gwent would have five MPs.
The details are found in amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill - amendments tabled by three English Lib Dem MPs. No news yet on what their Welsh colleagues think of them - or whether they were consulted.

The Bill is being debated by MPs today, so would pre-date any Lib Dem plans to give the Welsh Assembly more powers and link a cut in MPs to that.

Plaid Cymru, who highlighted the amendments at a Westminster news conference this morning, say they would only sign up to cuts in the number of Welsh MPs if they are accompanied by a transfer of powers to Cardiff Bay.

UPDATE 1624: Roger Williams MP, "Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Wales":

“The Liberal Democrats believe that there should be fewer MPs across the UK, and some of the numbers cut will obviously have to come from Wales.
“The amendment would explicitly allow the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats allotted to Wales if this was appropriate, and the amendment is intended to set out our initial plans on where to distribute seats across the UK.

"The Bill is at an early stage, and we will clearly be looking to achieve a settlement that gives Wales the best possible voice in Westminster. We have sat down as a party and worked out what we think is a fair distribution of seats across the UK, but if anyone disagrees then they should take part in the Parliamentary debate on this matter.

“If the number of seats in Wales was cut in line with seats across the UK we would introduce a consequential amendment to remove the link between Parliamentary and Assembly seats in the Government of Wales Act.

“The Liberal Democrats want to see a Welsh Assembly with full legislative powers, and these proposals should be viewed as a step closer to a Wales that doesn’t have to go cap in hand to Westminster. A Liberal Democrat Government would seek to transfer powers to the Welsh Assembly as soon as possible while ensuring that the overall number of MPs is cut.”

Monday, 18 January 2010

Home from home(s)

The selection of a Surrey councillor as Conservative parliamentary candidate in Ynys Mon has ruffled a few feathers.

Anthony Ridge-Newman says he is passionate about his Welsh heritage (his Mum came from Pontycymmer): "I have always believed that I owe my classical singing voice to my Welsh genetics."

Mr Ridge-Newman says he will move to Anglesey immediately and has already started learning Welsh.

Declaring himself to be "virtually a full-time candidate" may not go down to well with his current constituents 270 miles away. He was elected to the council only last June.

There is no shortage of advice for the new candidate from Tory activists on the conservativehome website.

One suggestion comes from a Quentin Langley: "One campaign idea which might have merit would be trying to persuade second home owners to vote in Ynys Mon rather than in their other constituency, though that might alienate other voters and might be difficult to organise in the timescale available."

An interesting campaign strategy - perhaps someone will start up to get the debate going.

Think different: sue Plaid?

There are only a finite number of political slogans in this world so you can forgive political parties for "borrowing" phrases from other sources.

Plaid Cymru's "Think Different" campaign has made its mark, with the party's various leaders now parroting the phrase in speeches and press releases.

Outside the party, the slogan has been noticed for two reasons - its approach to grammar (who needs an adverb when an adjective will do?) and its former use by Apple.

The Apple campaign is credited with reviving the company's fortunes from 1997 to 2002. There are even rumours that the slogan itself may be revived.

Plaid hope the slogan will have a similar impact on their fortunes at that time in the political cycle when, as is traditional, they are predicting their "best ever" Westminster election result.

They will also hope Apple's lawyers are not watching. Here's some helpful trademark advice:

8. Slogans and Taglines:

You may not use or imitate an Apple slogan or tagline.

For example: “Think different.”

Ah. My Plaid source says: "Apple who?! We actually developed ours totally independently, and then later realised Apple had used the think different part as well, honest! Great minds think alike."

They'll be claiming next to have invented a personal music player - the iPlaid? - but the great minds argument might struggle to convince Apple's learned friends. Perhaps, imitating Apple is just a core vote strategy.

As for grammar, Plaid say: "The 'Different' is not meant as an adverb - more of a statement, so the grammar is fine." That's all right then. Presumably Plaid won't be "borrowing" the full Apple script too. Here's to the crazy ones......

Class war: the ciabatta csar

He's not exactly promising free sun-dried tomatoes on the NHS but Gordon Brown's weekend appeal to the middle classes was pretty brazen.

So there were lots of references to "New Labour" (which is 15 years old now) and talk of aspiration, one of those words that politicians use but voters don't.

"And this is the next project for New Labour, our next generation project," he told his audience. "The coming decade will provide the UK with more middle class jobs than ever before."

But what is a middle-class job? Is the £60-an-hour plumber middle class? The £100,000-a-week footballer with no GCSEs middle class? Neither is part of what New Labour would call the knowledge economy.

Suspicions that Labour has until now been running a core vote strategy mean the Prime Minister is having to bend over backwards in the least subtle of ways to appeal to the middle classes.

Perhaps the middle classes feel neglected by the special policies targeted at the more vulnerable. Perhaps Mr Brown should offer a Commissioner for Middle Class People who could deliver fundamental middle class rights such as parking spaces at Waitrose, a freshly-baked ciabatta guarantee and lattes for all. Stand by for the ciabatta csar.