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Archives for October 2010

Put 'em up.

Betsan Powys | 18:16 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

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"We don't go looking for fights ... but then we don't have to".

Anyone who got a warm fuzzy feeling when the new Prime Minister came to the Assembly soon after the coalition was formed and proclaimed the "Respect Agenda" between the UK government and the devolved administrations will have long since felt the chill of intergovernmental wrangling.

A final few thoughts for you to kick about then, before I take a few days off to get to grips with the sander and the paintbrush - and that's relations between Westminster and Cardiff Bay between now and the General Election of 2015.

A colleague was chatting with a WAG insider recently and asked where they thought things were at now, if ten was bestest of buddies and nought was troops massing at the toll booths the other side of Severn Bridge. A long pause and the answer came back - "Seven but heading downwards". And the respect agenda of the spring? We're in a winter of deep discontent, was the gist of the response, a litany of snubs real and perceived. In short, frozen out and ignored.

But remember who's in charge at both ends of the M4 and remember who's got an election to try and win next year. How much of the anger from the Cardiff side of the street is synthetic? The same question was being asked a matter of weeks after the new coalition government was formed. A letter from the Wales Office had arrived in Cardiff hours after its content had been discussed openly with journalists in Westminster - I was amongst them. Not on, came the cry from Cardiff. Was it really such a big deal? Was the anger not appearing a bit on-tap?

But the insider is adamant. There's nothing synthetic about this at all. "We don't go looking for fights..." A pause. "But then we don't have to".

The decision to have the AV referendum coincide with the Assembly elections next year, the decision to make fundamental changes to the funding and governance of S4C, the scrapping of the Severn Barrage plan, the closure of Newport passport office - all these and others cited as evidence that Welsh ministers are seemingly the last to hear about big decisions with big implications for Wales.

Politically, the electrification of the Great Western line, not mentioned in the CSR, is taking on a symbolic importance even greater, perhaps, than its probable economic benefits. It's mentioned time and again when you speak to figures at both ends of the line. The decision is clearly in the balance and there's a lot riding on the announcement of whether it happens or not, expected in the coming weeks.

Overall there's a strong sense that the new UK Government is focused on getting things done and done quickly. The speed with which they've moved on several fronts isn't exactly conducive to fraternal, consultative relations with the devolved administrations. "Oh didn't we mention it? Sorry ..."

In Whitehall, there's barely disguised irritation at what's seen as, for want of a better phrase, childish behaviour from the Assembly Government. A source says bluntly, "It's time for some grown up politics, rather than spending your time blaming everything on someone else". The message is: this is the hand you've been dealt, now do the job you were elected to do and get on with it.

Carwyn Jones' jibe at Cheryl Gillan the day after the CSR settlement about Wales "lacking clout around the Cabinet table" (premeditated, by the way, not off the cuff) has touched a nerve. It won't be forgotten in a hurry.

The question that can't be answered until next spring is this - is the Labour-Plaid coalition in Cardiff Bay deliberately kicking against the Tory-Lib Dem government in London to sharpen the dividing lines ahead of next May's Assembly Election? If so, perhaps we can look forward to a smoother relationship between 2011 and the General Election in 2015 even if the cohabitation continues.

But the respect agenda cuts both ways, remember. If Carwyn Jones remains First Minister after May 2011, he'll have to deal with the same Secretary of State that he's publicly said isn't up to the job. Post-election pledges of a new era of constructive engagement will ring a little hollow if a lot of dirty water's already flowed under the bridge.

This is the risk of the confrontation strategy. But don't expect it to change any time soon. The frustration is real. In the days of Peter Hain and Paul Murphy in Gwydyr House a lot of business was done by phone, minister to minister. Now, there's a lot more letter writing going on, a much more formal relationship. Not unexpected perhaps and today's Wales Office is relaxed about it. "This is government to government, not the old school network" says a source. A more grown up way of doing politics. The other side would argue the opposite.

Which side is behaving like a grown up government? Or maybe this is what grown up politics looks like.

Time for that break.


They'll do it their way.

Betsan Powys | 13:30 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

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Time to switch off for a few days soon but first, just a bit more of that half term horizon scanning - a slightly closer horizon this time. The Order which will allow the referendum on further powers for the Assembly has been laid before Parliament and the Assembly, the question is decided and the date - March 3rd 2011 - is in place.

What's still conspicuously absent is the launch of the cross-party Yes campaign. We're told every time we ask that it's not far off but there are still elements to be ironed out.

True Wales have confirmed that they'll go for official status as the designated No campaign. Senior members remark wryly that there isn't much in the way of competition for that mantle but they see it as a matter of real importance that the other side of the debate is put strongly to voters.

They're sanguine about any celebrity endorsements that may be wheeled out by the Yes side. The feeling is that most people have already made up their minds and that neither the pre-campaigning period or the campaign itself will convince many people to change their position.

The message coming from the True Wales camp is that they're organised, united around a message and strategy and ready to go. In terms of where public opinion is, they believe recent polling understates the No vote and that they're "in the game" in terms of standing a chance of winning the vote. There could be as little as two per cent in it either way says one TW campaigner.

Well, he and YouGov can't both be right but we'll have to wait until the evening of March 4th to find out which it is, as counting looks as though it'll be through the day on the Friday rather than overnight, even if shares in coffee companies plummet as a result. Better for those bags under my eyes, I can safely say.

What of the Yes campaign? Although its structure, message and personalities remain under wraps, one intriguing element will be quite how genuinely cross party it will be. At a headline level, it will be just that - expect senior representatives of Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats at the Yes campaign launch.

In terms of how things are going work on the ground? That may be a little different and that's the intruiging bit.

The Conservatives have decided that they're not going to commit any party resources and will remain officially neutral, allowing members to campaign for or against as they wish. That said, expect to see the likes of Nick Bourne, David Melding and Nick Ramsay more than pulling their weight.

Plaid Cymru have set aside precious party cash to help fight the campaign and both they and the Liberal Democrats have been instrumental so far behind the scenes in pushing forward the Yes campaign. Both parties are foursquare behind the campaign.

Which brings us to Labour. In Rhodri Morgan they have the most popular politician in Wales and in First Minister Carwyn Jones a politician whose profile will have been significantly raised since his election as party leader at the end of last year. You can bet the BBC radio presenter who wasn't sure who 'the man with grey hair' was when Mr Jones was introduced to the Pope will know who he is now and you can bet too that by March, every effort will have been made to up the First Minister's profile. So the current and past leader will play a leading role in the Yes campaign. I understand Leighton Andrews is taking time out from bashing the university vice-chancellors to hone the Yes message, bringing to bear everything he learned during the 1997 referendum campaign.

But what of Labour's grassroots activist base? Here, things may be a little different. Labour are planning to run their own Yes campaign, separate and distinct from the cross party effort.

It will be a Labour-branded campaign which will have a relentless focus on the pro-further powers argument from Labour's point of view. The message will be calibrated to appeal to their core vote, their activists will be working to promote Labour's achievements during the last decade of devolution alongside selling the benefits of a Yes vote.

Setting it up will be one of the key early tasks of the new Welsh Labour general secretary, just announced as Dave Hagendyk, the party's former policy officer.

So: a campaign from the point of view of Labour's achievements. Pre-election antennae twitching, anyone?

It's not clear yet what the reaction of the other parties will be to Labour going its own way. Plaid and Lib Dem figures are fairly relaxed. They know it's crucial that Labour get their vote out if they're to win it so their feeling is - whatever it takes.

However, I wonder how long it'll be before the other parties start getting riled by what will effectively be a pre-election campaign for Labour being run out of Transport House under the guise of a referendum campaign? "It's pretty tribal, isn't it" sniffed one Tory figure.

Could Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats follow suit? They could but it could also lead to a fragmentation of the cross party campaign and a pretty rapid descent into party political slanging - music to the ears of True Wales.

The "Dafydd El" issue

Betsan Powys | 12:39 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010

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It's half term in the Assembly this week and after the frenetic, press-release-laden activity of last week's spending cuts announcement, time for a little bit of what management gurus call "horizon scanning".

One increasing topic of conversation in the tea room in recent weeks, beyond the day to day ups and downs, is the future of the Presiding Officer's role after the next Assembly election in May 2011.

Lord Elis-Thomas has been in place since the Assembly's inception in 1999. His achievements are beyond doubt - keeping a firm grip on debates in the early years, lobbying hard for the vital separation of the legislature and executive delivered in the Government of Wales Act 2006 and being an articulate, insightful, and sometimes ... what's the word ... arch commentator on the development of devolution. He has, as X Factor judges insist on putting it, made the job 'his own'.

But - and there's always a but - he has been there an awfully long time now and the question's being asked with growing urgency: should he serve a fourth term?

Now normally, journalists like to preface statements like that with words like "unprecedented". But Lord Elis-Thomas is his own precedent, if you like. The Assembly doesn't have the hundreds of years of history associated with the House of Commons. When Speaker Martin was forced from office, the history books were consulted, precedents found (rather embarrassingly for us Welsh, in a disgraced 17th Century Speaker from Denbighshire).

But the bottom line here is that there has never been an Assembly without Dafydd El, as political friends and enemies alike have grown used to calling him, in the PO's chair. Would he want a fourth term? I haven't spoken directly to him about it. In fact I get the impression that he doesn't really want any long conversations about it, thank you very much but I would say from everything I've gleaned, the answer to that question is yes. So will he get the job again?

There are strong signs the answer to that question is likely to be no.

The Tories are now openly opposed to a fourth term. Tensions are simmering under the surface at what they see as an increasingly high handed and imperial conduct. In the way that these things tend to in Cardiff Bay, matters came to a head in the chamber two weeks ago when the Presiding Officer refused to allow questions to the First Minister from Kirsty Williams relating to the Ministerial Code, which Carwyn Jones alone is responsible for policing.

There then followed an exchange on a point of order between the Presiding Officer and Tory Jonathan Morgan in which the Cardiff North AM laid out in detail the reasons why he disagreed with the PO's ruling. The First Minister, he argued, should be accountable to the Assembly with respect to the Code, as one of his functions as head of the government.

It ended with Lord Elis-Thomas growling back "I do not see that I have anything to add to what I have said". Handbags out in the chamber? Raised eyebrows in the tearoom afterwards.

Now this may sound arcane but it's highly significant. Lord Elis-Thomas represents Plaid Cymru, part of the governing coalition. Until now, there's been an acceptance across the chamber that he's so far from being "on message" in party political terms that this is completely irrelevant to his role as an impartial chair of the Assembly.

No longer. The Liberal Democrats will stand with the Tories on this one. When Lord Elis-Thomas's third term as Presiding Officer comes to an end in May 2011, they will not allow him to take the chair for a fourth. Enough is enough is the message and in a pretty open way by now.

Can he count on support from Labour and Plaid Cymru? I understand that the "Dafydd El issue" has been discussed between all four parties, at the highest level, and the consensus reported back to me is effectively - it's time for a change.

Never underestimate the Presiding Officer's political wiliness. You certainly wouldn't put your mortgage on him not sitting in that chair again after May's elections. But there are other candidates ready and willing to do the job and a growing sense that after twelve years, in a very simple way, it's someone else's turn.

Hammer and tongs

Betsan Powys | 10:10 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

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So George hammered the dragon - or he gave the dragon a tough but fair going over - it depends on whom you choose to believe this morning.

The same arguments are being rehearsed in Scotland so let's just run through them quickly:

The Treasury says that that their starting baseline for the Assembly Governmen's 2010 -11 budget - this year - is £15.0bn. This figure takes out the in-year cuts and certain projects and schemes which are coming to an end. Next year they say it will be £14.6bn.

The Assembly Government say that the Treasury have artificially reduced the baseline by stripping out the various items above. They say it should be £15.12bn, which is how much they're actually spending this year - so there's £120m off their budget to start with. Then they say that the £14.6bn cash figure should be adjusted for inflation which means that it is actually £14.2bn in real terms.

For them, then, the cut is actually £900m not £400m. They don't quite say the figures have been fiddled but they're not far off it.

It's fair to say that this sort of dispute has arisen every time there's been a spending review but it's worth noting that this is the first time there've been different parties in charge at both ends of the M4.

Whatever the merits of either side, there is no question that on the revenue, or day to day spending side, the settlement is better than the scenario they had been planning for.

They had planned for a three per cent cut in cash terms every year for four years. In fact, in cash terms, the revenue budget will actually rise slightly over the four years. So as Jane Hutt finalises the Assembly Government budget to be published on November 17, she'll actually be putting money back into departments planned revenue budgets rather than taking it out.

She would argue that responsible governments always plan for the worst and it's a lot easier to put money back in rather than take it out but the prediction of the 3% annual cash cut was used so often by ministers over the last few months that it effectively took on the status of the official position of the Assembly Government.

On the capital - or infrastructure - side, the picture is pretty much as grim as ministers had predicted. There are going to have to be some really hard decisions about which big road, hospital or school building projects now get the go ahead and remember maintenance budgets come out of capital too.

A virtue of the pessimistic planning is that departments have been hanging back from signing big contracts in anticipation of the capital cuts but you get the impression that the scale of it has still taken them aback.

So yes, there are always arguments about baselines and percentages, cash and real terms but this time it's more extreme and more damaging - hence, say Labour and Plaid, the dragon has been hammered.

And why has it taken such a hammering? Because, said the First Minister and his Deputy this morning, Wales has too little clout around the cabinet table. In other words it's the Secretary of State's fault. Cheryl Gillan let us down. All this talk of the settlement being better than it might have been is a nonsense - let alone the truly devastating impact to come of public sector job losses and benefit cuts.

Which of the devolved nations has been hit hardest in percentage terms? It's Wales. The cut to the day-to-day spending of the Welsh government is 7.5% in real terms and another 41% reduction in capital funds. But the comparable allocation for the Scottish Executive will be a reduction of 6.8% in revenue and 38% in capital. In Northern Ireland, it will be 6.9% revenue, and 37% in capital.

And there you have the latest evidence say the governing parties in Wales - and these are, after all, the Treasury's own figures - that Wales has taken a bigger hit than its devolved cousins. The difference may be slight but it's there and falls neatly into the narrative: that Wales is under Tory attack.

When I interviewed Nick Bourne and Peter Black on Wales Today last night it was hard not to sense the relief coming from them. The electoral nuclear weapon of the spending review has turned out not to be quite so explosive after all. It's bad - very bad - but perhaps not the devastating, knock-out blow they and their parties in Wales had feared.

And if the Labour and Plaid Cymru strategists had already written their plan of attack for May 2011, there are one or two who'll quietly admit that by the time George Osborne sat down yesterday, it needed just a little tweaking.

Limbering up

Betsan Powys | 09:03 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

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We're hours away from finding out the long awaited contents of the Spending Review. Welsh ministers will be watching more closely than most, as, unlike Whitehall departments, who've gone through a lengthy negotiating period with the Treasury before getting their final budgets for the next four years signed off, the Assembly Government has no firm idea what its budgets will be until the Chancellor gets to his feet.

That's because changes in budgets of the devolved administrations are governed by changes in the budgets of Whitehall departments - Lord Barnett's famous formula.

It's going to be a day of statistics, but I've got one advance one for you which could play an important role behind the scenes today. So as a limbering up exercise for what's to come later, let's have a look.

Barnett works in a simple way - it takes the cash changes in each Whitehall department, multiplies them by the amount that department's functions are devolved, then multiplies that figure by Wales' proportion of population compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. (My mistake: compared with England. Doesn't make any difference to the figures but well spotted!)

As that meerkat says, simples.

So if the Department of Health's budget goes UP by £1bn, this is multiplied by 99.5 per cent (virtually all of health is devolved) and then multiplied by 5.84 per cent (Wales' proportion of the UK population).

These proportions were all set out in 2007 at the time of the last Comprehensive Spending Review. But remember that population is fluid. What I understand is that the number being used for today's calculations of Wales' population proportion, based on official mid-year estimates, has gone down to 5.79 per cent.

Before we get the inevitable slew of "snub to Wales" press releases so beloved of my colleague David Cornock, consider this.

When spending rises, multiplying by a smaller number gives you a smaller rise. Hypothetical example - take a Whitehall department whose budget is 100 per cent Barnettised, which sees its budget rise by £1bn. Multiply that increase by 5.84 per cent and you get around £58.4m. Multiply it by 5.79 per cent and you get £57.9m. So for every £1bn increase, the Welsh budget would lose out on around £500,000.

So if the English health budget sees increases over the next four years, the increases coming to Wales will be less than they otherwise would have.

But there's another side of the coin here. If you multiply a negative by a smaller number, you get a smaller cut.

Take the example above - if our hypothetical department above sees its budget cut by £1bn, then the corresponding reduction to the Welsh budget under the new 5.79 figure would be £57.9m not £58.4m. So for every fall of £1bn, the Assembly Government actually saves £500,000 from the cut it would otherwise have received.

Will this have a positive or negative effect? It'll all come out in the wash today. One minister told me in passing in the last couple of days that the Assembly Government now believes privately that their prediction of a three per cent annual cash cut may be considerably too pessimistic and that the figure may be nearer one per cent a year. If so, their response to the Spending Review will need careful handling. Most people's gut reaction would consider a one per cent fall, even before inflation, as frankly not too bad. We shall see in the coming hours.

Out of the blue

Betsan Powys | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

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An announcement's expected tomorrow that the BBC will take over funding for the Welsh-language channel S4C. It's unclear at this stage whether it will be asked to meet the whole of the current budget, around £100m, but the channel would remain operationally separate from the BBC.

UK Government sources have told us that it would would retain its "operational independence" and there is no question of the BBC "taking over" S4C.

Meetings in Whitehall to decide the new structure were taking place as late as lunchtime today and several details remain to be worked out.

Last week, a well-placed source told me that the option of folding S4C into the BBC had been a real option for its future, but by then was definitively OFF the table. Back on with a vengeance, it seems.

**UPDATE**

Further evidence is emerging about just how late in the day this decision was taken. The chair of the S4C Authority, John Walter Jones was only told this evening about the deal.

Here's a statement just in from a spokesperson for the Assembly Government's Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones, who at the time of writing, hasn't been formally told about the deal at all.

"We haven't been informed about any decision regarding the future of S4C and there has been no discussion to date about any proposal to ask the BBC to fund S4C.

"However, while we await further information, we want to reiterate once again the importance of maintaining S4C as an independent broadcaster with its own entity, its own budget and able to make its own editorial decisions.

"There is a danger that should the BBC fund S4C that broadcasting in Wales will be even further dominated by one institution. The future of S4C and its budget should be a matter of open and transparent debate among the people of Wales and not rest solely with a single UK government department."

UPDATE
WEDNESDAY 12 15

The S4C Authority has agreed unanimously to launch a Judicial Review of the UK government's plan to "effectively merge S4C with the BBC".

They had "no prior knowledge of discussions between the BBC and the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt." Indeed the Chairman, John Walter Jones, heard the news on Radio Cymru.

He is "astounded at the contempt that the London government has shown not just towards S4C, but also towards the Welsh people and indeed the language itself. I was informed of these ill-conceived plans by Mr Hunt, and was told that it was a non-negotiable agreement, only after they were leaked on the BBC last night. This is no way to conduct public affairs and surely is an affront to the good conduct of public policy and the democratic process".

It's over to the lawyers.


'Under attack'.

Betsan Powys | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

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Scaled back, more cost effective, still a substantial benefit to the Vale of Glamorgan and to Wales.

The Conservative take on the announcement that the St Athan Defence Academy survives but not as you know it. "St Athan is still the place" as Nick Bourne put it this morning. But what was to have been built in that place has been deemed not to be commercially viable. The plans then? To look again, scale things down but make clear that "St Athan is still very much in play".

The Labour take.

"Wales is under attack".

"Yet again the Tories have turned their back on Wales."

"They lied."

" ... a Government that at every turn is choosing not to do right by Wales".

Labour voices, one and all.

In press releases, interviews and passing comments the narrative is inescapable.

Yes, people know and accept that there's a national deficit to be dealt with. They support the need to cut. Both Labour and Plaid Cymru - governing parties in Wales - think the approach is wrong, that George Osborne will cut too deeply, too soon. That part of their story is clear.

But there's more.

Look what's happening, goes the narrative - Wales is being singled out, Wales is being treated unfairly, Wales is getting it in the neck, "is under attack" as one long-standing Labour Minister chose to put it.

The decision not to built the Severn Barrage, scaling St Athan down, right down perhaps, kicking into the very long grass plans to electrify the rail line from London to Swansea: if you're Labour's Kevin Brennan that's "an unprecedented triple whammy of cuts all in the space of a week".

If you're Nick Bourne - and Kirsty Williams - they're a chance to point out that Labour didn't give the go-ahead to a single one of them either. "To be fair" said the Lib Dem leader this morning, Labour hadn't rushed into anything because they too saw that the plan needed careful, detailed consideration. Unfair, cried Conservative Andrew R T Davies, citing "the previous Labour Government's inaction on this project."

They make it differently but their point is the same: Labour can cry foul today but they didn't make it happen either. "People see straight through that. People aren't stupid" - the same point again in typically blunt fashion from Conservative AM, Darren Millar.

Is Wales being unfairly singled out?

It's more reliant that most parts of the UK on public sector jobs so if those are hard hit, Wales will feel it more keenly.

There'll be a direct knock-on effect on a business sector that's relatively small in Wales, so less resilient than in other parts of the UK.

The benefits bill in Wales is relatively high so when the axe falls in the Department for Work and Pensions, the hit in Wales will be relatively big.

All facts. All explain why maps of the UK showing the parts that will be hardest hit by the Spending Review have Wales as one of the areas marked in red: hit hardest of all.

So far, so matters of fact.

The Severn Barrage? Would Labour have gone ahead with it? I've yet to meet a Labour politician who's answered that with anything approaching a definite 'yes'.

The electrification of the Great Western rail line? The Labour Transport Minister gave it the go ahead, but - and it's a big but, it remains to be seen whether the Network Rail budget can sustain the cost.

St Athan? In January, Labour in government, put the decision off until they were out of government, saying that "the project is under constant review to ensure it meets value for money requirements".

The Newport Passport Office? Nick Bourne winces at that one.

But he must wince all the more, knowing that there's another current working against him and working against Kirsty Williams. It's the current of popular opinion and attitudes in Wales that since 1997 has seen a tendency to give credit for good news to the Assembly and to lay the blame for bad news at the door of the UK government.

The next six months are about to test the Bourne Doctrine to its limits.

The Dam Busters.

Betsan Powys | 12:51 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010

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So. Farewell then Severn Barrage ...

Farewell, at least, to the proposal to build a ten mile barrage from Lavernock Point to Brean Down near Weston-super-Mare.

A controversial project? Of course - because ground-breaking, ambitious projects reliant on a lot of public money always are, argued its supporters. Of course - because the cost was too big both in financial and environmentsl terms, said its critics. All or nothing was never the right approach.

Put "controversial" and "excessive" as the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne described the £30bn scheme this morning, in the one government pot and what you get is a 'no'.

That 'no' read like this: there is "no strategic case for major public sector investment in a large-scale energy project in the Severn estuary at this time". There is no 'yes' to any other option either.

True to Severn barrage form there's delight and gnashing of teeth in pretty equal measure, one of the reasons - as the environment analyst Roger Harabin spells out here - that the UK government saw it as too big a political risk.

Peter Hain is in the 'doom' camp. It is "disastrous for the Welsh economy and our environment". Personally he was always "determined to progress" the barrage, though Labour, in government, never gave it more than what one party source this morning described to me as "broad support". Some MPs wanted a pledge to build the barrage included in the party's election manifesto. They didn't get it. 'Preferred option' is one thing. Sign on the dotted line another.

The 'no' to the barrage is the right answer say Plaid. It was, says Elfyn Llwyd, "an expensive 'silver bullet' pushed by the Labour Party to show their supposedly green credentials". But the lack of a 'yes' to any other renewable energy scheme? Wrong.

So what to make of this morning's statement from Jane Davidson, Minister for the Environment? No gnashing of teeth. No delight. A straightforward press release giving thanks to those who worked on the study.

Go on, Minister, said our reporter, give us a response to the decision itself. Good or bad?

So it's official then. The Assembly Government is neither happy with the decision, nor sad. Neither disappointed nor jubilant. This is the sound of a Minister probably somewhat relieved she doesn't have to make what Sir Humphrey would call "a courageous decision" on such a controversial project.

If the St Athan military project gets the bullet in tomorrow's Strategic Defence Review, should we expect such a sanguine response, dare I even call it fence sitting?

Hardly.

S/Foreseeing

Betsan Powys | 16:15 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

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The best S4C can hope for is to have its budget cut by just a little bit less than cuts across the board in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

At least that's what one senior Conservative suggests - one who wishes there was something better to report, one who regards support for S4C as "a statement of respect for the language" but one who believes that the channel's own Authority has failed miserably to box clever and has, instead, boxed itself into a corner.

To be clear: cutting S4C's budget will now be possible. The UK government announced today that it will legislate to break the inflation link to S4C funding increases if MPs approve, which means the door is now open to introduce cuts which government insiders have been suggesting could be between 20% and 30% over the next few years.

In S4C's own document published today - "S4C - A Process of Renewal" - the channel argues that a 25% reduction in its budget "would significantly reduce the Authority's ability to provide a broad range of high quality programmes as part of a full television service, would strike at the heart of the programme service itself, and would call into question the S4C Authority's ability to fully perform its statutory duties".

The spending on content would fall from £83m per year to £62m by 2014.

Set aside the fact that many expect the Authority to be defunct before very long anyway. And read on.

A cut of 40%, says the report, would call into question S4C's very existence as a channel. Spending on content would fall to just over £50m over the next four years. 800 jobs would be lost. "Even a more cautious approach would put the estimate of lost employment at over 500".

So what does S4C want?

A root and branch review of every single aspect of the channel's future to be done and dusted by June 2011. Who should be responsible for it? The S4C Authority and the channel's staff. In other words: hands off Jeremy Hunt. We want to "own" this. And until it's written, don't cut us off at the knees.

Whatever happens there's a commitment to reduce staff and to save £1.5m in annual salary costs.

And try these suggestions for size:

Afternoon

We would also need to review all our current afternoon transmissions - largely, daytime magazine programmes.
This would present us with the challenge of either leasing the time to other broadcasters or filling with ultra-low
cost material. It might be a space where we could run the proceedings of the National Assembly.

Gee thanks as one AM put it.

How about plans to "explore the use of product placement within current rules" - Pobol y Cwm scriptwriters, get your thinking (logo-enhanced) caps on.

But make no mistake: this is a bid for survival.

On Radio Wales this morning Rhodri Morgan made clear that moves were made to devolve responsiblity for S4C to the Assembly Government - no strings attached, not much money attached either - while he was First Minister. He said no thanks, because his government would have had to cut its budget by 10% every year because a television channel can't compete with healthcare.

The whisper is that transferring S4C - no strings attached but absolutely no money either - to the Assembly Government was very much on Jeremy Hunt's cards. "It was pencilled in" said one voice.

The question now is whether S4C will be given the time and the opportunity to shed its own skin and start - let alone finish - that process of renewal.

The bells of San Jose

Betsan Powys | 19:23 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

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Photo from collection at heritage room at Senghenydd village's community centre

Photo from collection at heritage room at Senghenydd village's community centre

Forgive a personal blog post.

Back in the Sixties, before I'd started primary school, my first experience of a classroom proper was in Senghenydd.

My mother taught there and in the days before rules and regulations would have made such a thing beyond the pale - and Mrs Davies the headmistress wouldn't have been allowed to turn a blind eye - she used to take me with her.

I loved it. I sat with Mara and Ann and the twins Mark and Patrick. I got to go to the carnival. I was told about the mining disaster in Senghenydd and as a child, simply couldn't fathom the horror.

You'll understand then, perhaps, that this letter from the First Minister to the President of Chile - where the sound of bells marked survivial today - has struck a chord with me.

Dr Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera Echenique
President of the Republic of Chile
Palacio de La Moneda
Agustinas
Santiago
Chile

Dear President Piñera

I write to congratulate you and the people of Chile on the remarkable rescue of Los 33 at the San José copper-gold mine near Copiapó.

As a nation with a history of mining dating back to the Bronze Age, the people of Wales have followed the events of the last ten weeks with great admiration and solidarity.

We have memories of many mining disasters where sadly the outcome proved very different. The names of these tragedies - Senghennydd, Gresford, Cilfynydd and many, many more - are part of our national consciousness. Those experiences mean we feel a deep sympathy with mining communities worldwide.

We have admired the courage of those trapped and shared the emotions of their families. It has been a joy for us to witness the skill and determination of the rescuers and to join the celebrations of your people.

One of our country's poets, Idris Davies, once wrote of how the bells of Wales echoed the feelings of our people:

"O what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr"

As the terrible events of the 5th August unfolded to the world, the bells recovered from the Cathedral of Santiago disaster in 1863 were travelling between Wales and Chile.

Just as the words of our poet provide a link with events of the past, today, they reflect the spirit of your miners and the resolve of all involved in their rescue.

You have shown how hope can triumph over adversity - and on behalf of the people of
Wales, we offer you our best wishes and congratulations.

Yours truly

CARWYN JONES

Juggling priorities

Betsan Powys | 18:08 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

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What has it got to do with balls?"

The woman was on her lunch hour, rushing past to get a sandwich and clearly unsure why I'd shoved a plastic ball into her hand. The answer was that I wanted to know more about her thoughts on free prescriptions - Wales' most famous universal benefit - and wanted her to vote on whether it should survive.

Remember Rhodri Morgan describing devolution as a "living laboratory?" Remember that phrase, "clear red water", coined by the First Minister to describe the way Welsh Labour policy on health, education and other devolved areas differed from the New Labour approach?

Ask people how the approach in Wales has differed and I bet you quite a few would point to the health service. They might say something about the distinctively statist approach taken here but I bet too they'd mention the so-called "freebies" - free prescriptions for all, free school breakfasts, free hospital parking, free bus passes, free entry to museums and so on.

They've caused relatively little stir outside Wales. Ok, there have been headlines in the Daily Mail every now and then. Our Health Minister, Edwina Hart had a bit of a ding-dong with her then counterpart in Westminster, Ben Bradshaw, over the benefits of free car-parking in hospitals. But mostly, while public expenditure has been rapidly rising, universal benefits haven't really got people going. That's already changing.

Gerry Holtham tends - with one deft move - to change the subject when the markedly higher amount Wales receives in terms of total public spending is compared to its contribution to the UK Treasury in tax. The gulf is many billions of pounds, reflecting Wales' lowly GVA per head and lack of major companies that have their headquarters here.

But with the whole of the UK bracing itself for serious cutbacks, will those 'made in Wales' policies could become the focus of some resentment over Offa's Dyke? Will people outside Wales start to look a lot harder at Rhodri Morgan's famous laboratory, where the experiments are, largely, funded from across the border?

What do we think here in Wales?

As you'll see tomorrow - and as the snapshot above suggests - my own laboratory of lunchtime crowds had plenty to say about free prescriptions. The definite 'no' camp was adamant, if not just a little bit angry. The definite 'yes' camp was affronted the question was being asked. Of course yes, they said. This is about health.

Most interesting? The 'yes ... buts'

It's about time Labour and Plaid listened to them, says Nick Bourne.

No ifs, not buts says Jane Hutt, the Finance Minister. Universal benefits are here to stay.

The CSR may not be until next week but the political battle lines for May 2011 are already being drawn.

The Bourne Doctrine

Betsan Powys | 15:17 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

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There are days when updates to very recent entries just drop into your lap - and today is one of those days.

How come? Because here it is. The Bourne Doctrine. It's Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne's answer to the calls for a clear, coherent strategy for dealing with the very substantial backwash coming their way from the UK Government's Comprehensive Spending Review next week. And before you ask - he coined the phrase, not the media.

How does the new doctrine work? In short, Mr Bourne told journalists this morning (I wasn't among them thanks to tonight's programme but the note-taking amongst my colleagues was exemplary) that his AMs will back cuts which are made equitably across the UK in order to bring down the deficit but they will oppose any that, as he put it, have a "major dimension" for Wales. He cited cuts to S4C's budget and the planned job losses at the Passport Office in Newport as examples of those which are unacceptable to Welsh Conservatives.

It at least gives his party something to work with as they pick their way through the political minefields of the next six months. It gives that concerned, head-shaking Conservative colleague I wrote about this morning, something to hone into an argument on difficult doorsteps. But it raises as many questions as it answers. For example, any cuts to S4C's budget are by definition going to affect Wales alone. But what about the withdrawal of the £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, one of the coalition's first acts on taking office? No equivalent impact on Wales but certainly painful for Sheffield.

There are surely going to many, many cuts which are asymmetrically distributed across the United Kingdom, driven by bureaucratic logic rather than territorial considerations. How long will Mr Bourne's Conservative colleagues in London accept their Welsh brethren opposing every cut which is seen to be affecting Wales in some way worse than other areas of the UK?

In other words are the cuts only legitimate if every corner of the UK feel the pain equally?

Talking of feeling the pain, Mr Bourne was asked whether he had the hardest job in Welsh politics over the next six months, up there with his opposition opposite number Kirsty Williams. I have a great job, he replied, but said the two have regular talks "to buoy each other up". Really, asked the hacks, their ears pricking up - your very own self help group? Opposition Anonymous?

Tongue in cheek, said Mr Bourne. Don't get too excited.

It clearly hadn't gone down particularly well with the next occupant of the media briefing hotseat, Kirsty Williams. She was at pains to pour cold water on the idea of her and Mr Bourne's group therapy sessions. Yes, they talk but hey, they're not that close ... an argument slightly undermined by the fact she'd already discussed the buoying up comment (made less than ten minutes earlier) with the Tory leader.

She also had a remarkably similar strategy to the Bourne Doctrine too - equitable cuts we can deal with, unfair cuts we will oppose.

This afternoon, there are two urgent questions in the Senedd. One is about the job losses at the Passport Office in Newport, the other about the strong rumours that consumer watchdog Consumer Focus Wales is to be axed later this week.

According to the opposition's new rules of engagement, they will fulminate against the passport office cuts, since Wales is being unfairly singled out but give their backing to the demise of CF Wales, as it's part of a Uk-wide organisation that's being wound up.

It remains to be seen how long they can sustain the some cuts fair, other cuts unacceptable strategy, especially since Welsh jobs are likely to affected by both kinds. Both the Williams take on things and the Bourne equivalent may be aimed at adding some sort of consistency to opposition in the very trickiest of times - but doesn't it look horribly defensive too?

Please leave your comment ...

Betsan Powys | 11:05 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

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after the blog entry.

Betsan's Blog - and my colleague David Cornock's blog - have both been closed to comment for some time.

Why?

Because some of the comments didn't really add much to a mature public debate.

Simple.

What have we done about it?

We've looked again at the way comments are moderated and now, we've reopened both blogs to comment.

Comment in your droves; comment from any and every side of any and every political divide. Tell it as it is but as you do it, stick to the House Rules.

Here they are:

House Rules

We reserve the right to fail messages which:

• Are considered likely to provoke, attack or offend others

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We may also close comments on a post if we think the discussion has become irrelevant or out of date.

We want to keep our blog as focused as possible. For this reason, messages not relevant to the post may be rejected.

Repeatedly posting personal or offensive comments about individual members of the public or people who work for the BBC may be considered harassment. We reserve the right to remove such messages and take action against those responsible.

See?

Simple.

"Prepare to fall off a cliff".

Betsan Powys | 10:59 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

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It's just a few weeks ago that a senior Conservative was listing the projects that, as he saw it, would make or break his party's chances in next May's Assembly elections.

These were the low hanging fruit if you like, projects with a high profile, projects that voters would notice if they were all picked off, one by one, by the Treasury. They'd notice too if there was an attempt to insulate them in some way from the worst of the cuts - cuts he regarded as inevitable and the right thing to do.

He was talking about the £14bn defence training academy in St Athan, the £1b plan to electrify the railway line to Swansea and the future of S4C - annual budget £100m.

If one of these fell headlong into the clutches of the Comprehensive Spending Review - well that was almost inevitable and fair enough. If two of them were seen to shrivel from artist's impressions to distant memories, then that was tough, very tough. If all three fell foul of the axe, then, he shook his head. Then tough but fair would start to feel like tough but as far as Welsh Conservatives were concerned, not quite fair. 0 out of 3 on top of massive public spending cuts and cuts to benefits too? Then he thought it inevitable that the size of the Conservative group in the Assembly would shrivel too.

All those hard-won concessions on 'Welshifying' the party? They'd count for very little if the party in Wales - and in particular perhaps, its voice in Westminster - hadn't been seen to protect Wales at all from the cuts to come.

Since then? You suspect he'll have given up on two of the three and is as much in the dark about the third as just about everyone else.

Since then? Newport Passport Office workers have heard that their jobs are on the line - the sort of announcement that turns headlines and huge numbers into real pain and possibly panic for three hundred famlies - families who'll not give two hoots about living in constituencies hotly contested by coalition parties right now but who might well care very much when it comes to voting in the Assembly election.

Since then he'll have no doubt stuck to his belief that cutting hard and cutting now is the right thing to do in the long term and that had such an eye-watering debt not been run up under Labour, his party, hand in hand with the Lib Dems, wouldn't be having to inflict such cuts at all.

Since then he'll have heard Lib Dem AM Jenny Randerson on Good Morning Wales distancing herself absolutely unambiguously from any proposal to make graduates pay an awful lot more for their university education in England - or leave higher education institutions in Wales looking like the 'cheap and cheerful' end of the market.

As for the Assembly Government: there's no talk of playing the same sort of game as the SNP government in Scotland, bringing out a 'what if' budget document hand in hand with the real thing. But the narrative? It's inevitable that what could be done if Wales were 'fairly funded', if there was an extra £300m in the coffers, will be part of that story.

I bumped into a Labour AM the other day. He's from a part of the country that research commissioned for tonight's big debate on the spending review suggests will be amongst the least resilient during the tough times to come. He shared the advice he'd been given by someone whose job it is to know these things.

It was this: "Come October the 20th, prepare to fall off a cliff".

Jason Mohammad and I will have a go at making clear the impact of the cuts to come on Wales in that debate tonight from Abertillery. Go on - join us on BBC 1 Wales tonight at 10.35.

(By the way this entry was written today - Tuesday. It initially appeared under yesterday's date because I opened the entry and started writing it last night. That'll teach me to try and get ahead ...)

It takes ... three.

Betsan Powys | 11:01 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

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That the three devolved administrations believe the impending cuts in public spending run the risk of delivering economic and social harm shouldn't be news to you.

That the leaders of the three devolved administrations have signed a joint declaration saying so, very bluntly, is, as one senior source in Cardiff Bay put it, "massive".

First Ministers of Wales and Scotland Carwyn Jones and Alex Salmond, their Deputies Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon have signed the declaration, along with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland - all urging David Cameron and the UK Government to reconsider their plans ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th.

The CSR is expected to cut tens of billions from public spending across the UK to deal with Britain's huge budget deficit. It is, said David Cameron yesterday very clearly, the right thing to do. It is the only responsible way to deal with "Labour's legacy."

Now here comes a direct challenge to his government's plans for dealing with the deficit - the devolved leaders joining forces to say the current proposals for cuts "could have a significant and lasting negative impact on the economy, including people's jobs".

They say, "We believe that promoting economic growth is the best way to restore the health of our public finances and this must be our overriding priority.

"Only when there is clear evidence that the recovery is well established, and can be sustained, should significant fiscal tightening be implemented.

"Frontloading the cuts into the next two years is entirely the wrong approach for the economy and the vital public services upon which so many people depend. We therefore urge that the spending cuts are scaled back and phased in over a longer time period.

"Failure to do so runs the risk of doing lasting damage to the economy and the fabric of our public services.

"This does not preclude the setting out of a clear plan for consolidation which promotes confidence and guarantees financial sustainability but simply that the focus at this stage must be on securing the recovery."

In other words: even it out a bit; spread the pain and don't risk tipping us all into recession.

In other words: We think you're getting it wrong. Our governments think you're getting it wrong. We think your plans will harm our economies and we're standing together to tell you so.

In other words: Ok, so we don't really expect you to jump to it and rejig the figures between now and October 20th. But when we have to start swinging the axe we'll remind voters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland of today's headlines. We'll remind them and say blame them - not us.



Up and down

Betsan Powys | 16:44 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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The applause for David Cameron's speech has died away here in Birmingham where, just as predicted, he set out to play good cop to George Osborne's benefit-grabbing bad cop.

Yes, there was plenty about the sacrifices ahead, the challenges, the hardships to come, that lot's legacy and yes, he's talking about you Labour. Cue applause and quite a lot of it too.

But it was heavily leavened with optimism to come - transforming the country, bringing out the Big Society spirit. There was a lot about entrepreneurs, about risk takers, about wealth creators. The music as he and Samantha Cameron took to the stage at the end of the speech was 'It takes two'. No, not Mr and Mrs Cameron but Mr Cameron and you - we're all in this together remember.

It seemed to go down pretty well with the party faithful who were very much in need of something to clap. The snap media reaction seems largely positive too.

Back in Cardiff though, a colleague draws my attention to the First Minister's latest interview, for the Western Mail's Business in Wales supplement. It certainly strikes a resolutely downbeat note. The headline may read "Carwyn Jones sets out his vision for Wales" accompanied by a smiling photograph on his office balcony but his mood during the interview seems rather at odds with the image.

Super fast broadband is key to Welsh business success, he says. But the UK government have cut the 50p levy on telephone bills, so they need to come up with a workable scheme to roll it out. Otherwise Wales "will be disadvantaged".

The emergency budget? There was nothing in it for us. "A disappointment" he says.

A commission into the effect of cuts on the public sector, as in Northern Ireland? "We've got nothing like that"

Cancellation of the defence academy at St Athan? "That would be a disaster for us." The mood music, you'd have to say, is that it's all over bar the shouting.

The Severn Barrage? "I think the reality is unless there is there is a substantial UK financial commitment at government level it's not going to happen".

Cancellation of the Great Western electrification plan? "Disastrous". "An extreme problem."

It's a fairly rare, long form interview with the First Minister in a publication much read by the Welsh business community. If they were looking for a positive vision, then I imagine they were sorely disappointed.


.

"Quite some time ... "

Betsan Powys | 12:07 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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A quote from Sam Coates of The Times on Radio Wales first thing this morning, the final day of a conference dominated til the last by an announcemt made on its first day:

"I think a lot of the row was factored into the grid and they accept that they are going to be unpopular. They accept that within two weeks Tories will dip dramatically in the polls - no-body in the coalition will want to go anywhere near an election for quite some while, while these difficult and painful changes take effect".

How long until the Assembly elections?

7 months and counting.

Does that amount to "quite some time?"


"Fundamentally unfair".

Betsan Powys | 19:24 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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If he was "surly" then, he's now "extremely unhappy" - and that, having listened to his interview with BBC Wales tonight, is putting it mildly.

Guto Bebb, the Conservative MP for Aberconwy, wants you to know three things:

He "agrees wholeheartedly" with the principle of looking carefully at benefits such as child benefit.

He has no desire to be seen to be defending people who earn as much as £44,000 a year.

But he's very afraid that the plans to cut child benefit, as they stand, won't just be seen to be unfair. They are unfair.

In his own words:

"The coalition has from the outset stated quite categorically that everything we do in terms of cutting benefit and reducing the benefit must be done in a fair manner. I don't think people will think there's anything fair about (these) proposals."

How come, he asks, can it be fair that individuals who earn over £44,000 will lose out on child benefit while their neighbours, a household with two working parents who earn as much as £86,000, would retain it.

"To me that is fundamentally unfair. It is a flaw in the proposals laid out by George Osborne on Monday and I suspect we will need to look at this again because we will not be able to persuade people that this is just, reasonable or fair".

"I do agree that means testing can be extremely complicated and difficult but ... in our manifesto in 2010 we stated quite clearly that some of the Labour party proposals had created a situation in which people were penalised for being aspirational, they were penalised for doing well. And to create another anomaly and a situation simply because it's too complicated to deal with it properly is not good enough in my view. We need to change the way in which tax and benefits interact in a way which is fundamental but we need to carry the British people with us and we will only do that if what we do is seen as fair and is fair".

His pay off is this:

"We have to do this in a way which is seen as fair and just and equitable." So says a man who knows what it's like to knock on doors in a constituency where every vote counts. He would be happy to defend a cut that he regards as "fair and just and equitable" on doorsteps in Llandudno and Llanrwst.

But not this one.

Radio silence

Betsan Powys | 15:20 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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What do you do if you're livid with the Tories' announcement on Child Benefit, regard it as "a huge faux pas" ... but just happen to represent them in parliament?

What do you do if you're so convinced it was tough but in no way fair that you're calling it "an unnecessary own goal?"

And what do you do if you'd already agreed to be interviewed on the last day of conference?

Do you, perhaps, go very, very quiet?

Incidentally Jonathan Morgan - who decided to make his voice heard on spending cuts yesterday has another few suggestions for his own party today, this time on the future of S4C.

A flavour: "For those of us who have been at the heart of the development of the Welsh Conservative Party since the first Assembly election of 1999 I understand the dangers in this new political era of being seen just as Cameron's ambassadors in Wales.

"We must show that we are the voice of Wales even if it sets us on a collision course with the UK Government.

"It was inevitable that we would find ourselves in this position at some point with an issue of great principle and it is my view that with the future of S4C, of its budget and of Welsh broadcasting, we have reached that point."

A man who's decided he's been silent for long enough, apparently. Will we hear a chorus joining in ... or not?

Delhi or bust?

Betsan Powys | 10:34 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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The last Culture Minister hit the headlines when he misread the name of the winner of the Book of the Year ... before forgetting to read the "No Smoking" signs in a Cardiff Bay pub.

This one is about to hit the headlines because someone misread the time of his flight's departure from Heathrow to Delhi and meetings surrounding the Commonwealth Games. They thought it was ten at night. It was, in fact, ten in the morning. The flight had long gone when Alun Ffred Jones got to check-in and so, we presume, is the cost of that flight to the taxpayer.

Not his fault, perhaps. But not great.

To lose one Culture Minister may be regarded as a misfortune. Making the second look daft - what's the quote - "just looks careless".

Who's in the driving seat?

Betsan Powys | 15:14 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010

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For anyone looking for glimmers of hope from George Osborne's conference speech in Birmingham this afternoon, ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review of course, I'll sum it up for you: there wasn't much. The Chancellor had a pretty stark message about the impending cuts, particularly the impact on middle class recipients of child benefit.

Was he trying to get the pretty brutal news on that particular benefit out before his CSR announcement on October 20th as some sort of softening-up exercise? Perhaps but trailing the news on the morning of his keynote speech on the first full day of the Tory conference - a conference doing its level best to celebrate being back in office - would seem to be a strange time to do it.

Unless, that is, he needed something tangible to illustrate the painful measures that the Conservatives say must be taken to get the deficit and the benefits system under control. It does that job, certainly.

For alongside the announcement about withdrawing child benefits for those earning over £44,000 a year, there was a fierce attack on Labour's financial record in office. Mr Osborne wants no one to be in any doubt as to who he and his party believe are responsible for the current financial situation, nor who he feels voters - particularly that "squeezed middle"- should be looking to blame at the ballot box after the cuts seem to bite. They took you to the brink of bankruptcy. They left you with crippling debts. We're now having to sort it out so yes, tough must go hand in hand with fair.

His message in a nutshell? "Don't give the keys back to the people who crashed the car."

He won't be the only one to hammer home that message in Birmingham this week. Mr Osborne and his colleagues at Westminster have another four and a half years to frame this narrative, coalition permitting.

Their colleagues in Wales have considerably less time ahead of next May's Assembly elections and some within the party seem to be approaching panic stations about the Welsh Conservatives' apparent inability to construct a similar narrative - that the cuts are a necessary, if painful response, to Labour's fiscal irresponsibility while in office.

This article on Wales Home today http://waleshome.org/2010/10/time-to-change-the-narrative-in-wales/ is a very public wake up call from Cardiff North AM Jonathan Morgan.

"In Wales we have not taken up the challenge constantly put to us by our opponents that the present situation is somehow the fault of David Cameron. The opinion poll ratings have shown that the rhetoric has started to work, Labour's poll rating according to the ITV/YouGov poll (29/09) is at 44% compared to 22% for us.

"We are holding our 2007 election position but it is also clear that in Wales Labour are becoming more popular in their heartland areas at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and Plaid. From their perspective, this proves the narrative is working and this is what we need to correct."

And if it's not corrected? "We face an electoral test unlike any other we have seen since 1997".

It's a cri de coeur, born of frustration that according to the opinion polls, the Peter Hain-inspired mantra of "savage Tory cuts being inflicted in Wales" (which got the Labour vote out for the general election on May 6th and saved a number of seats which could otherwise have got away from them) looks to be gaining a great deal of traction in an Assembly context too.

The more astute, strategic thinkers among the Welsh Conservatives have long realised that trying to convey the view that these cuts are effectively Labour's rather than the Tories' is considerably harder in a devolved context. After all, it's the UK Government's budget deficit which is being tackled and the Assembly Government's budget which is being cut as a result.

The task hasn't been made any easier by the post-election departure of the Welsh Conservatives' highly rated director of communications to become a special adviser to Cheryl Gillan at the Wales Office.

A veteran Labour campaigner confirms they feel the YouGov poll findings are reflected on the doorsteps in their heartlands but admits that in areas like Monmouth and Pembrokeshire, there's still some residual scepticism about the way Labour allowed the deficit to rise. "You messed up our country" is still heard on some doorsteps there.

How do they think the Tories are doing in terms of getting that message across Wales-wide? "They're nowhere" comes the reply.

And that's the concern from Jonathan Morgan: "It isn't going to be easy, but if we want the public and the media to accept the Conservative position then we need to advocate it with all our strength and imagination, failure to do so will render us vulnerable to a reversal in our political fortunes".

"After spending nearly 12 years working to rebuild the Welsh Conservative Party as a credible force in Welsh politics, I have no ambition to see it flounder."

Flounder. Not a word the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne will enjoy reading. But the gauntlet has been thrown down; the scale of the task for the next six months has been laid out.

If they are going to get the message across about who they believe really "crashed the car" then it sounds as though someone needs to get into the driving seat sharpish.

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