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Now you see him ...

Betsan Powys | 15:33 UK time, Wednesday, 1 July 2009

When Assembly Members came together in the chamber this afternoon to discuss the Enterprise and Learning Committee's report on the way the government has so far handled the economic downturn, they expected to see the man in charge of the economy standing up and standing his corner.

He is Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Deputy First Minister, a man who "comes across like a good country solicitor" according to fellow Plaid member Adam Price , a man who came across like the Scarlet Pimpernel this afternoon, according to his fellow Assembly Members.

They seek him here, they seek him there ... or more appropriate after this afternoon's events perhaps, now you see him, now you don't.

The Deputy First Minister was in the chamber earlier, answering questions and facing flak. There's growing cross party pressure on him over the alleged delays in the scheme to dual the A465 Heads of the Valleys road. At economy questions today, he faced the wrath of Huw Lewis, whose increasingly vociferous campaign on the issue is reaching new levels of anger. He was joined by Mike German from the Lib Dems, and William Graham from the Tories - both reflecting deep unease that there are still no confirmed start dates for several key stretches of the road.

And as the rhetoric gets stronger, the positions become more entrenched. Mr Jones' opponents claim that precious capital resources are being sucked into improving north-south routes - at the expense of east-west, particularly the A465, the dualling of which is seen as vital to the economic regeneration of the Heads of the Valleys area. It's claimed what amounts to a Plaid Cymru nation building exercise is holding up much needed help for one of Wales's most deprived areas.

Not so, says Mr Jones. I've told you and I'll tell you again. I inherited the reprioritisation programme from my (Labour) predecessor in the job, who in turn made his decisions on the basis of expert advice on the complex issue of programming trunk road improvements. All I'm doing is sticking to a time table set by a Labour Minister.

The conflict derives from the four yearly cycle of announcing priorities for trunk roads - which means when it "crosses" ministers - 2004 report under Andrew Davies, then 2008 report under Ieuan Wyn Jones. There's no obvious way of divining who made which decision and when.

But having faced down the barrage of criticism in the chamber, Mr Jones then decided to hit the road himself.

He was gone.

Who stood up on behalf of the government to respond to a heated debate on the way they've handled the recession? John Griffiths, a deputy Minister in the Education department.

Where was Mr Jones, AMs demanded to know? The Minister for the Economy had "urgent ministerial business" to attend to, ventured Mr Griffiths. In fact his own appearance showed that there was joined up working between their respective departments.

They didn't buy it. The urbane and rarely ruffled Conservative Economy spokesman David Melding raised his voice. That in itself deserved raised eyebrows. This was "truly pathetic" he said. Was this "what passes for leadership in the Welsh Assembly Government?" The Lib Dems, with Jenny Randerson leading the charge, went for "a discourtesy" to his fellow AMs.

Even the - Plaid - chair of the committee, Gareth Jones couldn't help adding that he'd been "a little surprised" by the Deputy First Minister's absence.

So where was he?

He had "a long standing engagement dating back months to attend a conference this afternoon on the economic crisis organised by the Welsh Governance Centre." And anyway given the Enterprise and Learning Committee's report covered the work of the education department as well as the department for the economy, it was entirely appropriate that the Deputy Minister for Skills should respond to the debate.

We seek him ... and find him in the Hilton Hotel, where his speech, according to some anyway, was shifted from a quarter past four to four o'clock. Maybe.

What's significant here? That Mr Jones is gaining a reputation amongst an increasing number of AMs for not responding quickly enough to their queries, not taking them and their job of scrutinising what he does seriously enough; that it's hard to avoid the feeling he's being targetted by those who suggest that being DFM and holding such a crucial portfolio must be very hard work indeed. You know what they mean - perhaps a bit too hard these days.

Mr Jones may argue, as a good country solicitor might, that the facts suggest otherwise.
He's answered questions on the government's handling of the economy many times before .The ProAct and ReAct schemes - yes, those again - have generally gone down well. His department is working overtime to respond to what is a global crisis.

But perceptions and reputations are equally important and a good country solicitor ought to know that too.


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