When David met Carwyn: the sequel
- 4 July 2012
- From the section Wales politics
There'd already been a bust-up before Welsh MPs turned up for the Westminster Hall debate on the Assembly's electoral arrangments - and they arrived in the mood for another one.
This bust-up was to be about the UK Government's Green Paper - a consultation in other words - on how the proposed cut to the number of Westminster seats in Wales from 40 to 30 should impact on the way AMs are elected in future. The answer, if you're a Conservative AM, is not at all. The provision is there to de-couple the two sets of seats. Leave well alone and sort out bigger problems.
The Conservative Welsh Secretary, however, doesn't share that view.
In the Green Paper there are two options, neither of which would see the status quo survive. Under one option the Assembly would stick to 40 seats but their boundaries would be changed to ensure seats are roughly of equal size ("what's sauce for the Westminster goose is sauce for the Assembly gander" as Wales Office minister David Jones put it) and 20 members would be elected, as now, via the regional lists. Under the other option, the boundaries would be changed so that they're co-terminous with the Westminster seats, 30 AMs would be elected via the first-past-the-post system in a specific constituency, while another 30 would be elected via the list system.
At least that's my version of what it was all about.
If you're a Labour MP the ill-tempered debate was about a 'partisan', 'ill-conceived', 'ill-judged', 'ham-fisted', 'high-handed', 'arrogant' - and I could go on - attempt to impose new electoral arrangements on the Assembly with little regard to what its members, or the people of Wales want, arrangements, at that, that'll favour the Tories in future elections. This was a debate about how the Welsh Secretary is stamping on the delicate structure that is devolution.
Their preference? That nothing changes but if change is a must, a move to 30 seats to match future Westminster seats with two AMs elected in each, both via the first-past-the-post system. It's a model that would put a stop to any kind of proportionality and would, they admit, give Labour a clear electoral gain. "It's a legitimate bargaining position" one Labour MP told me, knowing full well it's not much more than that.
If you're a Tory MP this bust-up is about Labour playing childish games yet again. This is a reasonable, legitimate debate to be had, even if it exposes the tension between their group in Cardiff and Westminster. Cheryl Gillan was in cabinet, fed up, we were told, of Labour's games. All the same Susan Elan Jones, whose voice cuts through the general mud-slinging, got stuck in. Her personal animosity towards the Welsh Secretary was "well known" said David Jones. "Because she's rubbish!" called out Ms Jones. It was that sort of debate.
i'll stick to two points. The first is this and stems from the 'who-said-what-to-whom' row between the Prime Minister's camp and the First Minister's. It's worth re-reading David Jones' response during the debate very carefully. He is, after all, a lawyer:
"The Prime Minister's recollection is that when he met the First Minister ... he told him that the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process. He did not say that the matter was to be decided by the Assembly itself and frankly, it would have been extraordinary if he had done so, because of course under the devolution settlement that is not the state of affairs that prevails. "
The notes taken at the time, he added, don't tally with the First Minister's version.
Carwyn Jones insists he was told the decision wouldn't be made without the consent of the Assembly, not that the decision would be "decided by the Assembly". This is, say Labour MPs, about a moral right to make the decision, not a legal one. Not quite sure who is rowing back - just yet. Home in too on "fully engaged." MPs from both sides were pondering that one and what, precisely, it means.
The second point: relations between David Jones, the Wales Office minister and Owen Smith, the Shadow Welsh Secretary. Mr Jones' colleagues and opponents are convinced he'll be filling Cheryl Gillan's shoes before too long. His colleagues rather like him but baulk at what they call his "political persona which is, um, rather less attractive." They may have heard of the (non-Welsh) Labour MP who once suggested Mr Jones's demeanour is more suited to an undertaker who's about to embalm you, than an MP there to represent you.
But then Labour have long since adopted the tactic of playing the man not the ball when it comes to the Wales Office. Mr Jones seems to have decided that two can play that game. He closed the Westminster Hall debate with some pointed remarks. Had Labour not refused to turn up to a planned Welsh Grand debate on the Assembly's electoral arrangements, there would have been far, far more time to discuss the issue. Had the Right Honourable member for Torfaen, Paul Murphy, or the Right Honourable Member for Neath, Peter Hain, still been sitting opposite him, Mr Jones was certain such game-playing would have been avoided. The member for Pontypridd, he suggested, had quite a bit to learn.
Mr Murphy shook his head. Mr Smith smiled, but looking all the while as though he'd just had a gulp of embalming fluid.