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.