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Archives for January 2011

Who's who.

Betsan Powys | 11:37 UK time, Saturday, 29 January 2011


Just who will we hear speaking over the next few weeks for the Yes and the No campaigns in the Assembly powers referendum?

Now granted, that's not the question most of you were asking over your cornflakes this morning but it is a question that surfaced in the Western Mail you may have read over your cornflakes this week - so let's tackle it.

Let me start by saying this: You'll be hearing a great deal over the coming weeks from ordinary voters who've decided to vote yes, no, or who are still trying to work out which way to go. You'll be hearing from the sixty members of the People's Assembly from next week - people who got in touch after hearing my pleas before Christmas and told us they'd like to be part of our coverage around the referendum and the election in May. Some of them feel pretty strongly about all sorts of issues that affect the referendum though they don't represent either campaign.

But the question I started with is this: who will we hear speaking over the next few weeks for the Yes and the No campaigns?

Now in terms of the Electoral Commission, there is no official lead campaign on either side.

Yes for Wales met the criteria to become the official Yes campaign but due to the fact that True Wales declined to apply, under the law, to be the official No campaign, the Commission was unable to designate official campaigns for either side of the argument.

(The blogger, Alwyn ap Huw, did apply to fill the slot of lead 'No' campaign but his bid failed. You get the impression he was disappointed but not that surprised, somehow.)

The official campaigns would have received benefits including a free Wales-wide mail-shot of their campaign leaflet, a political broadcast slot across radio and TV channels, a £600,000 limit on campaign expenditure and £70,000 grant for organisational purposes.

So instead of official campaigns, the Electoral Commission is now only required to recognise "permitted participants" - in other words, groups or individuals who register that they intend to campaign for one side or the other.

Who are they? On the Yes side of the fence so far there's Yes for Wales, Plaid Cymru, Tomorrow's Wales and Unison

On the No side there's True Wales, the self-styled Miserable Old Fart and Mark Beech, who has described himself as an official Monster Raving Loony based in South Wales. [I've changed the word 'lived' to 'based'. Mr Beech has been in touch to say that though he's based in Wales, he doesn't actually live here.]

To be clear, the fact that they've all been registered with the Electoral Commission as "permitted participants" simply means that they've sent in their names and would have to declare it if they spent more than £10,000 while they're at it. Then again they may, in the end, decide to stay at home and watch the rugby.

In other words the simple fact that they've chosen to register their names doesn't confer any particular status on them as campaigners. They've sent in a form and the Electoral Commission has got it. That's it.

So to this press release from "Yes for Wales" where Lewis issued a challenge to broadcasters about the way they now cover both sides of the referendum debate, saying "'Yes' campaigners will all continue to work together through 'Yes for Wales' to present a consistent message and to work with the media, but there is no recognised lead for the 'No' campaign, so no single group should be treated with any sort of priority over other fringe parties* campaigning for a No vote.

"Each group has the right to parity, even if their diverse opinions don't help clarity."

What Mr Lewis and Yes for Wales are arguing isn't just that broadcasters should ensure all sorts of voices from within True Wales are heard (and True Wales has a pretty varied collection of supporters) but that broadcasters should give True Wales no more air time than the self-styled Miserable Old Fart or Mark Beech, the Monster Raving Loony, because they are "permitted participants." But on the Yes side, Mr Lewis points out, everyone will "work together through 'Yes for Wales'."

Does that argument hold water? No, not in my view.

We'll decide who to interview based - not on whether they've sent an envelope to the Electoral Commission - but after considering things like whether a group, or individual, has a demonstrable track record of campaigning on the issue, have campaigning capacity and whether they represent that side of the debate to the greatest extent. In other words you try to use editorial judgement when you decide who to interview and how often.

On Yes for Wales' logic, fifty people could register as "permitted participants" on the Yes side, decline to be represented through their "umbrella" organisation and demand to be on TV just as often as YfW. Parity for one, parity for all.

On the other hand hearing from all sorts of voices from within True Wales - and Yes for Wales - seems not just fair enough to me. It sounds like exactly what we should be doing. We should be giving you a chance to hear not just from the leaders but from others who've come out to campaign in their name and to spell out why in ways that stir up a strong response from those who oppose their views.

It may seem obvious but it's also stated in the BBC's referendum guidelines that "news judgements continue to drive editorial decision making in news based programmes" - whether there's a referendum round the corner, or not.

So there you go.

Will we always get it right? No, probably not. That, no doubt, is asking just a bit too much - but you can, at least, be quite sure that we're well aware how important it is that we try to get it right.

*If the 'fringe party' to which Mr Lewis is referring is UKIP, it's worth noting that UKIP confirmed this week that contrary to what's been said in some press reports, they're not officially supporting the No campaign. Individuals are free to do so but voting no in the referendum is not party policy.


A somewhat different message from UKIP over the weekend. They didn't and have no plans to make a request to become "permitted participants" and they won't, as a party, be campaigning in the run-up to the referendum, nor spending any money on supporting the No campaign - but they do, as a party, advocate a No vote.

From afar

Betsan Powys | 17:25 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011


I was standing on the balcony of the Scottish government offices in Edinburgh, trying to disentangle why talking about "Scottish style powers" on offer in the referendum in Wales would be wrong, when the latest ITV/YouGov opinion poll pinged into my inbox.

The political parties' ratings are pretty much holding station month-on-month ahead of May's election, but most attention is focused on the referendum voting intention results.

Would the splurge of publicity surrounding the launches of the Yes and No campaigns this month have had an effect?

The answer? Yes, but the net effect seems to have been to increase the number of "don't knows".

Here are the (unweighted) figures:

If there were to be a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales increased law-making powers, how would you vote?

Dec Jan

Yes 46% 44%

No 25% 23%

Don't Know/ 29% 32%
Wouldn't Vote

So the upshot is +3 for the don't knows.

For the first time, YouGov have also produced results weighted on how likely respondents are to vote, with the following results:

Yes 49%

No 26%

Don't Know/ 26%
Wouldn't Vote

The Sound of ...

Betsan Powys | 13:46 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Call this a straw in the wind entry.

It's one of those where this might be something, could be nothing. I have a feeling it's the former but in the interests of "you read it here first" - and yes, a girl's got to score brownie points where she can in these days of non-stop referendum/election meetings - here goes.

The Assembly Government is in the process of passing its Local Government Measure. As currently published, it would give Ministers powers to direct councils to work more closely together to deliver more efficient and cost effective services. It stems principally from frustrations that the joint working agenda isn't being developed quickly enough by Wales' 22 local authorities.

However, my colleagues who are in Cardiff Bay today are sniffing the air and sensing that something's up. They tell me that Ministers are planning to introduce a number of late amendments to the Measure. And they are so substantial that it looks as though a two-thirds majority in plenary to suspend standing orders may be needed before they can be put forward. This could happen as early as tomorrow.

What are those amendments likely to be? Well, they're currently still being drafted but I gather they would give Ministers the powers to merge or amalgamate councils under certain circumstances.

This is of an order of magnitude greater than the powers currently in the Measure - and begs a number of questions. Here are two for starters:

Why are they being introduced so late in the process?
What's the intention behind them?

Labour have already ruled out any substantial reduction in the number of councils if it wins another four year term. When the suggestion of revamping the 22 authorities is put to them, Ministers always sigh at the predictability of the question and the mood music that follows is around collaboration in service delivery between councils - something the Measure in its current form makes plenty of provision for.

I don't think this is a precursor to any change of heart on this - for the powers to be introduced so late and in such a specific form, I think they're for a specific purpose. And that is, to paraphrase the Sound of Music, "how do you solve a problem like Mon Mam Cymru ... " I'm talking about Anglesey. It just doesn't scan.

The well sourced suggestions coming from both the Bay and from colleagues keeping a close eye on Anglesey, is that the patience of Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant and that of the WLGA has finally run out with the island's broken political system, and they're preparing something radical - most likely a merger with mainland neighbour Gwynedd. My colleague Vaughan Roderick asked Carl Sargeant some time ago whether such a merger was on the cards. Vaughan didn't get a nod or a wink but then the lack of outright rebuttal from a Minister who speaks his mind, was noticeable.

I may be wrong - but the political narrative and legislative logic is beginning to point inexorably in that direction.

From both sides of the bridge, watch this space.


The Assembly Government looks to be in all kinds of trouble on many fronts over this amendment. As I write, the Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant is in a somewhat earnest-looking meeting with the entire Plaid Cymru group in the Senedd.

The suggestion that's being whispered, is that even his own Business Minister Jane Hutt may not have been fully in the picture. The Liberal Democrats are outraged at the way this has been handled and will oppose any suspension of standing orders, and the Conservatives are - at best - willing to back it with severe reservations - at the moment.

The irony is that you can find few voices in the Senedd who don't believe that ministers should have the ultimate power to merge councils - but plenty of those who object to the shoehorning of such powers into a Measure that was designed for quite different purposes and the whole way this has been handled.

Therefore Mr Sargeant now faces a series of hurdles to get his way.

Firstly, and most pressingly, the Presiding Officer has ruled that his amendments as currently drafted fall outside the scope of the Measure. That is, it's constitutionally unacceptable to graft on merger powers to the Measure at this stage of its progress. In layman's terms, the Government's trying to get a quart into a pint pot.

To have any chance of getting the amendments through, he will need a two thirds majority in plenary tomorrow - it's fairly clear that this could be tough, hence tonight's meeting with Plaid Cymru and the fact he'll need votes from outside the Labour-Plaid coalition anyway.

Even then, since the draft amendments have been ruled out of order by the Assembly authorities, all this will do is get the committee looking at the Measure to consider the amendments. It doesn't magically bring them under the scope of the Measure.

So the government are now scrambling to find a means of including the changes they want to make into the legislation whilst keeping everyone on board. Again, watch this space.

Off to Scotland in the morning to interview their First Minister Alex Salmond but I'll be keeping in close touch with goings on in Cardiff Bay.

The road ahead

Betsan Powys | 14:22 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011


Peace in our time?

The First Minister hasn't exactly stood himself on aircraft steps waving today's Memorandum of Understanding between the WLGA and TUC Wales in the air - but the language on all sides is that of a breakthrough.

As reported here back in early November negotiations have been underway for several months to try and find a measure of agreement between councils and unions over how to manage the cuts and efficiencies needed to make ends meet over the coming years.

Today, those negotiations concluded with an MoU (always looks worryingly like an IoU to me but there we go) between the two sides.

In the intervening period, we've had some positive developments. There's Neath Port Talbot's apparently amicable agreement with their staff for a 2% pay cut earlier this month but also some negative ones, Rhondda Cynon Taf's somewhat crass emailed ultimatum to staff to agree to new terms and conditions within four months or face "hundreds of compulsory job losses". When she was asked about it Jane Hutt raised an eyebrow, looked down, jotted a few words on her pad before saying that "it's up to our social partners nationally to help us towards a more positive outcome ... than the one we all heard about last week".

The WLGA are calling today's MoU "a significant achievement"; the TUC are calling it "a hugely significant step forward". So let no one be in any doubt as to its significance, at least for the purposes of a press release.

But what will it mean in practice?

A few initial thoughts. Firstly, the WLGA is very careful not to box itself in with a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies anywhere in Wales. They don't want to tie their members' hands completely when it comes to local negotiations.

A cynic might also say that leaving that door ajar at least means that less unpleasant (but still unpalatable) measures may be more appealing to unions as an alternative to outright job cuts.

So what will those measures involve?

"Areas agreed as appropriate for local consideration of cost reduction measures include car allowances, overtime and weekend working allowances and pay protection / redeployment allowances following organisational change".

This is the much-vaunted "menu of options" that both sides have been trying to get to during the negotiations. In total, eleven separate measures are now on the table, to be implemented locally.

How much of a sacrifice they will be in reality will remain to be seen at this stage but it does appear on first reading that some workers could see a significant hit in their pay packets as the price of avoiding redundancies.

But intriguingly, this doesn't look like a simple zero sum game between compulsory redundancies versus cost saving measures, to be thrashed out between council officers and union reps.

The MoU also contains a provision that "discussions will take place with complete transparency on the local financial position and will consider all avenues for dealing with deficits including service delivery and Council Tax levels".

This would seem to be a significant (yes, that word again) concession on the councils' side. They will now have to "open the books" to the unions, rather than asking them to take the financial position of the council on trust.

A union source says that if the councils want a proper partnership, then they will have to justify why they feel they can keep council tax rises to a minimum while inflicting financial pain on their members. On the face of it, at least, this is unions encroaching on the territory of the elected councillors - something that won't got down well in every town hall in Wales.

It's worth noting that the MoU is extremely detailed in terms of the cost reduction measures as they apply to employees. It's much more vague in terms of changes to service delivery and that potentially thorny area of setting council tax.

All, as they say, will become clearer soon. One thought to leave you with. When the chief executive of RCT council sent out his email to staff, the price he put on avoiding redundancies was as follows:

"...if we introduce a new pay structure following the Council's job evaluation exercise, embrace a series of limited changes to our terms of employment and work hard together to improve the way we do things, compulsory job losses and service cuts can be avoided."

One wonders quite how different this will be compared to the measures announced today. Although the negotiations on the MoU are finally over, there are plenty more to come up and down the country.

Peace in our time? Perhaps.

The view from Westminster

Betsan Powys | 20:18 UK time, Sunday, 23 January 2011


Does the Welsh Assembly need greater powers?

Is the referendum on March 3rd a tidying-up exercise?

Or is it a big step in creating a more powerful Assembly?

The Westminster Hour asks the questions tonight at 10pm on Radio 4.

Just say no.

Betsan Powys | 15:39 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011


To Newbridge Rugby Club where I doubt they have such a thing as a Zen room handy.

What will True Wales - the body campaigning for a no vote - want to make quite certain IS there, centre stage?

Ordinary voters, grassroot campaigners determined to be David to the Goliath of a more slick, establishment-supported Yes campaign that's been waiting for the opposition to get properly out of the blocks.

I've seen the speech that Rachel Banner, a key figure in the No campaign, intends to deliver tonight. It's a good speech, a very good speech. The 'slippery slope to independence' rhetoric is there. But it sticks to the point, sticks to its mission which is to persuade voters that devolution has so far failed to deliver.

Where is the motivation, she asks, for giving Assembly Members more powers to legislate? The prosperity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK? Well that has widened. The devolution dividend she highlights in schools is the £527 spending gap between pupils in Wales and England.

"We say to the people of Wales, don't let them hide their record over the last decade. Make them get the basics right on the economy and schools. More laws won't pay for one more ambulance. More laws won't pay for one more nurse. More laws will not improve stroke services."

Where do things get rather more difficult? How about these lines:

"Now, so divided is the Health Service in the UK, that cross-border relations are breaking down... because of a shortfall of money from Wales. So we no longer have a universal health service in the UK. Aneurin Bevan must be turning in his grave."

What does that mean? Does having "a universal health service in the UK" suggest no campaigners would rather health was not devolved? That the National Assembly wasn't, in fact, in charge of the health service? Would many rather there was no National Assembly at all?

And what, under the heading "True Devolution" does this sentence mean:

"True Wales is here today to say that there is a better, more forward-looking form of devolution than that which Assembly politicians are currently offering. Instead of looking to centralise power in Cardiff Bay so that the Assembly becomes a pale copy of Westminster, we say that politicians must look to give power to the people, involving them in meaningful decision-making, to achieve true devolution."

I'm off to Newbridge to listen - and to ask just that.


From the No campaign an extra "no" tonight that might change the nature of the referendum battle over the next few weeks.

True Wales had until midnight tonight to submit their bid to the Electoral Commission to become the designated - official - lead No campaign. They've decided to say no to that chance. Some months ago we thought they might take this course but they've made it clear both publicly and privately that they were going to go for it.

So why not make it official? Because the Electoral commission rules make it virtually impossible, they argue, for a grassroots campaign to qualify. Because if there's no official No campaign there can be no Yes campaign. And if there are no designated campaigns, neither side gets £70,000 to spend on their teams. Neither side will have their campaign leaflet delivered free of charge to every household in Wales and neither side will get the platform of a referendum broadcast.

"Be grateful," said Len Gibbs of True Wales, "our decision has just saved the Welsh taxpayer half a million pounds." A spokesman for Yes for Wales said: "Our priority is to engage the Welsh public in the referendum and we will be discussing with the Electoral Commission the best way to do this."

Final thoughts. Could the biggest impact of tonight's decision be how much each campaign is now allowed to spend overall. And could someone somewhere try for a last ditch attempt to take on the No mantle?

The dogs that didn't bark

Betsan Powys | 13:07 UK time, Tuesday, 18 January 2011


In a moment, the bell will ring out around the Senedd and after questions to the First Minister, Assembly members will get their first set-piece opportunity to debate the draft budget. What will we get? I imagine that we can look forward to some sound and fury, certainly but in this morning's Conservative press briefing, all the talk was of the strange lack of sound and fury from Welsh civic society.

Listen. What do you hear? The relative silence that goes hand in hand with a broad welcome to a difficult announcement.

Strange? Just a bit because after all, this is the first proper cutting budget in the Assembly's history, so why such a muted response from all those organisations affected, from the NHS to local government to education? Especially since in previous years, responses have ranged from the gloomy to the apocalyptic. As my colleague Vaughan Roderick always asks on draft budget morning: so whose turn is it to gather the clip of the minister saying "it's a tough but fair settlement" and the local government representative saying "we've cut into the flesh, now we're cutting into the bone?"

The question was put to Tory leader Nick Bourne this morning - does this relative silence indicate that the Assembly Government's got it, well, about right and by implication, does it suggest your alternative plans get it wrong?

Mr Bourne opted for a leader-of-the-people tone. Perhaps Welsh interest groups might believe the government has got it right, he said but I'm appealing to the Welsh people. That's who I care about and I firmly believe they think we've got it right, he added.

Sitting next to him though, was Angela Burns AM, there to talk about the Tories environmental policy launch later in the week but also someone who has clearly been thinking about this for some time. And when Angela Burns has been thinking about something, it's generally worth listening to where that process has taken her.

Where are the howls of outrage, she asked. Where are the local government leaders promising rivers of blood? Where - specifically - is John Davies, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association? Why are the Local Health Boards not warning of swingeing cuts to services? If they did so in the good years, then why isn't it times ten in the bad?

And her answer? There's an election round the corner. The response - or lack of it - isn't because the budget is popular, it's because the institutions concerned are looking just over the horizon at life after May 2011 - and they know which side their bread is buttered.

Blood curdling warnings of massive cuts won't be popular should there be another Labour finance minister in charge of the books after May, particularly one who's just faced the Welsh electorate having to defend their party against quotes from various chief executives promising doom for public services under their budget plans.

"Just look at it guys" she implored, "It's pretty blatant!"

But the result gives Mr Bourne, Mrs Burns and their colleagues precious little to work with in attacking the government and hence today's outpouring of frustration.

Vague appeals to the wisdom of the people of Wales don't really wash too well when the government can point to endorsement - however lukewarm - from the people who actually deliver the services on the sharp end.

The Liberal Democrats have taken a different tack. Rather than argue the draft budget should be taken to bits and rewritten from scratch - not serious politics, the Lib Dems might argue - they're focusing on two specific areas, a pupil premium for disadvantaged children and an Innovation Fund to build an entrepreneurial economy.

Between them, they would cost £66.2m in 2011-12 and they've laid out exactly where they would find £66.2m to pay for them.

All well and good but does that mean, as an opposition party, they agree with 99.56% of the government's draft budget next year? £66m out of £15bn = 0.44%.

Hardly a figure to man the barricades with.

As one senior Lib Dem said afterwards, somewhat despairingly, this is what we've been able to piece together ourselves. If we knew more, we could make more changes.

It just goes to show the massive advantage held by governments when it comes to budgets: knowledge is power.

And it doesn't hurt to have those whose budgets you're cutting seemingly onside too - at least until after May.

Start of term

Betsan Powys | 19:19 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011


If Assembly members and those who work with, or rely on, or simply watch them are ever tempted to think they could get away with just drifting through a term, they certainly won't be thinking it at the start of this term.

Of the 58 AMs heading back to Cardiff Bay - two are ill and unlikely to take their seats in the chamber for a while - there are some who know this is the beginning of the end. They have either made it clear already that they won't be fighting to retain their seats, or that they're heading to another place, wearing rather grander clothes, and certainly don't call each other by their Christian names. Or perhaps they know in their bones that it's going to be one heck of a fight to make it back to Cardiff Bay.

When there's an election a matter of months away, minds are concentrated. Spare a thought for support workers or press officers who might find themselves out of a job because the wheel has come off and they were only a small cog in it.

As one voice of doom pointed out to me last week if the Liberal Democrats fall from six seats to four, then they lose a press officer. If they return just two AMs - unlikely, I'd argue but not impossible - then that doesn't even constitute an Assembly Group. It's more a partnership, perhaps, or a duet, and those do not get the sort of money to which party groups are automatically entitled.

It's no cert that all four party leaders, the four who will stand side by side at Yes campaign events over the next few weeks, will make it through the test they face in May. Carwyn Jones and Ieuan Wyn Jones will feel relatively safe, but should the Conservatives take Montgomeryshire from the Liberal Democrats, Nick Bourne's regional seat will be more than shaky.

And should the Liberal Democrats feel the wrath of those voters who gave them the chance to gain power in Westminster and now wish they'd cast their votes elsewhere, and should the Lib Dems lose Brecon and Radnorshire too, then their leader won't be coming back to Cardiff Bay.

I'm not, as those of you who read this blog know, a great one for predictions. Who knows where May will leave us. That, after all, is entirely up to you. But I'm not alone in suspecting that One Wales Two feels very much on the cards. If you've spent any time listening to Carwyn Jones recently, he's made it as clear as anyone with a bargain to strike is likely to, that he doesn't want to lead a minority government. Could Labour win a clear majority in May? Yes, but it's more a possibility than a probability.

So if you're a useful Labour strategist, you're thinking - what would happen if you just missed that target. Is a deal with the Lib Dems even a possibility? If Rhodri Morgan thought a Lab Lib deal unpalatable - inedible in the event - after the last election, then how would Carwyn Jones ask his party to swallow such a deal after this one. After all the Lib Dems have struck quite a different bargain, to promote a quite different set of priorities in Westminster.

What about sticking with the familiar then? One Wales Two. Now, surely we're talking probabilities. Even Peter Hain, not an early fan of the red-green coalition, described it last week as having been a "huge success".

What's in it for Labour?

A rock solid majority.

An enviably clear run at delivering a programme of Government with which you're entirely at ease.

A clear conscience when you point an accusatory finger at the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives at Westminster.

The warm glow that comes with seeing your own party gaining ground in the polls while your coalition partner's support is solid but not growing inexorably in government.

And so to Plaid. What might Plaid want from One Wales Two? Now there is a question.

What is there beyond the obvious - another term in government, to put a distance between Plaid and 82 years in opposition?

How about another chance to prove they have it in them?

But their top, long held ambitions went into One Wales Mark One - a Convention leading to a referendum on further powers, the Holtham Commission on funding, legislation supporting the Welsh language, and a Welsh language daily newspaper that never quite made it when reality hit home.

So if they get the chance, what goes on the wish-list next time?

Would the devolution of policing, and parts of the justice system be there or thereabouts? Broadcasting?

As I say, they may never get the chance, but if you're a useful Plaid strategist, what are you thinking?

Warman Peace

Betsan Powys | 11:52 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Just as the bookies start the new year by telling Nick Clegg his party has a snowball's chance in a very hot place of winning next week's by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, another message is sent - this time from Cimla.

John Warman, a Neath County councillor has "come home to Labour" after 30 years as a Lib Dem. It's clear he always very much felt and sounded like a Labour politician anyway and his is hardly the high profile defection Labour might have hoped for.

But if politicians who defect tend to be seen as opportunists, it has to be said Mr Warman didn't much look like one this morning. He just looked fed up and too unhappy with his lot to remain a Lib Dem.

"I was there when Nick Clegg came to Swansea University during the General Election campaign - the pledge to end student fees earned him a hero's welcome. I cannot abide hypocrisy in politics, and what Clegg and others have done in Government is unforgivable. They have abandond a generation that looked to them for leadership".

Peter Hain, Carwyn Jones and Gwenda Thomas were in the Senedd this morning to greet him. Come on in, the political water over here's lovely was the gist of their message to any other wobbling Lib Dems.

Proof that Mr Warman doesn't come across a man with an eye for the main chance? He referred to his new leader as Carwyn James in interviews afterwards.

Defections are always tricky for the party being cast asunder - it tends to look like sour grapes to trash the reputation of the leaver. The Lib Dems have done a more in sorrow than anger line this time round:

"It's very sad that he has gone back to the Labour Party that has wreaked havoc in the Welsh economy.

"John Warman is returning to a party that has left families in his ward paying thousands for their mishandling of the economy, ran our health system into the ground and made a sham of our education system."

And a sideways glance at the morning's events? The news that in Plaid's ranks, two and two had made five. Carwyn Jones ... Gwenda Thomas ... Peter Hain lining up to talk to the media? "We thought this was it - that she was off and he was in" said one very, very relieved source.

Holiday reading

Betsan Powys | 07:34 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011


I know it's terribly last year now but think back, a moment, to the sudden resignation of the shadow health minister in Cardiff Bay as 2010 drew to a close.

The consensus was that Tory leader, Nick Bourne, had some problems to contend with within his group but that he'd played that political bouncer pretty well after it was lobbed at him, seemingly out of nowhere.

Andrew RT Davies's decision to spend more time helping out Tory election candidates with their campaigns rather than promoting his party's flagship policy was one of those bizarre political events where sometimes a leader just has to hold up his hands and say "I'm as mystified as you." That's exactly what Nick Bourne did and he got some credit for his candour.

At Assembly level, if anything, there was a show of unity behind Mr Bourne. Colleagues rallied round, both publicly and privately.

But is there quite the degree of unity of approach between the Welsh Conservative leader and the Secretary of State for Wales? I ask the question because of this article by Cheryl Gillan, published in the traditional news desert between Christmas and the New Year.

Tensions have been simmering under the surface between the two sides for some time but what we get is an unvarnished critique of the Assembly Tories' strategy - and a warning.

After the standard issue dismissal of Labour's record in government and a recognition of the slow but steady resurgence of the Conservatives as a force in Wales, come these quotes:

"As a party we must build on our success in Wales. In the months ahead we must be bold.

"But we must also be responsible in what we say, do and promise. The decisions we take and the arguments we make must look to the long-term, rather than simply for short-term gain.

"That was Labour's way - going for the headline but failing to provide the finance to fund their schemes or the business case for their populist policies."

Hang on a minute. Surely a comparison with Labour, those shameless merchants of spin - as the Tories would have it - is about as barbed an insult as exists in the Conservative lexicon?

Is this the Secretary of State openly warning the Welsh Conservative leader that he's in danger of getting it badly wrong?

The situation seems to be this.

At present, the Conservative group in the Assembly feel aggrieved that the big ticket items like St Athan, rail electrification and prominent items like the protection of the S4C budget aren't being delivered even though their party is in government. There's a tendency within the group which sees the Welsh arm of the party being betrayed by their colleagues in the UK government, leaving them with precious little to sell on the doorsteps as the election approaches.

Meanwhile Westminster Tories think their Cardiff Bay counterparts are allowing Labour and Plaid to let rip into the UK coalition government far too often and far too easily and should be acting as a much more effective firebreak as the implications of the deficit reduction plans become clearer.

Add to the picture the botched handling of the NHS funding pledge and the so-called "Shadow Budget" which looked very much like a two page press release and what they see is further evidence of a lack of cutting edge.

That sort of narrative had only been whispered thus far but it's said out loud by Cheryl Gillan later in her article:

"We must counter Labour's attacks on what Conservatives are trying to achieve and hold Labour and Plaid to account for the decisions they have taken - and continue to take on the areas over which the Assembly Government has control, such as schools, the NHS, and local government."

The implication of these words is that neither of these things are happening at the moment and Mrs Gillan clearly believes that Mr Bourne and his colleagues are in danger of "letting Labour off the hook" as a result.

In 1974, Edward Heath went into an election asking "Who governs?"

Are the Welsh Tories in danger of going into an Assembly election with the same question being asked about their own party, with the answer being - either Nick Bourne or Cheryl Gillan - but we're not really sure?

Yes = No excuses

Betsan Powys | 14:12 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011


"Make your way to the Zen room" said a Yes for Wales campaigner who'd already heard all the jokes.

No, she didn't promise we'd better understand the meaning of life if we got there but we would hear the campaign's best shot at persuading voters to turn out and vote Yes in the referendum that will be held on March 3rd. The floor to ceiling windows were plastered with giant Yes for Wales tick/dragon's tail logos, the team of helpers putting them up not spotting - as one bright photographer did - that the backdrop, clearly visible behind them, was the Big Sleep hotel. There he had it, a picture that told a story of a campaign that has eight weeks to win a referendum to which an awful lot of Welsh voters are oblivious.

This was the un-jazzy, un-starry official launch of the Yes for Wales campaign. Expect more jazz and stars at this evening's do but nothing lavish. The message from campaign chair Roger Lewis that "there is no profligacy whatsoever in this camp" was made early on. Any money donated will be spent on "getting the message out to the people". Where their money has come from so far won't be made clear until the Autumn when all donations of over £1000 - but not a penny less - will be published as required by law. Some small amounts of corporate and trade union donations had been made already, conceded Mr Lewis but all donations would be welcome, he added hopefully.

When the campaign is, inevitably, designated as lead Yes campaign by the Electoral Commission come February, it will then be awarded tens of thousands of pounds to explain why voting Yes is the right decision. The same amount will be given to the lead No campaign to make their arguments. We're expecting True Wales to launch their campaign the week after next.

What did we hear from the Yes campaign?

That voting 'no' would not mean things would stay as they are. Wales' voice would be weakened. A 'no' vote would hole the Assembly Government below the water-line when it came to negotiating with Whitehall.

A 'yes' vote would strengthen Wales' voice. It would mean laws that affect only Wales would be made only in Wales - "people are uniting behind this simple principle."

A 'yes' vote would allow Assembly Members to get on with the job of "developing Welsh solutions to Welsh problems" - in other words, making decisions that are not necessarily the same as ones made elsewhere - without having to negotiate a legislative system that means they must first get the nod from Westminster.

It would create "a no excuses culture". There'd be less of an opportunity for politicians in Cardiff Bay to duck and dive and blame MPs if the going got tough. They'd have to focus on delivery and explain why if they failed. This would "raise the bar" for the Assembly.

Where did they get into difficulty?

Education is at the heart of the campaign. The launch was at the Atrium, the University of Glamorgan's centre for Creative and Cultural Studies. Roger Lewis was flanked by a head teacher and a student (the 'ordinary voters' in such demand when political times become rather more extraordinary). Education was, he said "at the heart of how the Assembly Government are trying to move the country forward", "one of the pillars of devolution, a key pillar, a fundamental pillar." Yet an international study, published before Christmas, suggests that over the last decade, the performance of 15 year old pupils in Wales has suffered compared with other pupils in other schools in other countries. How do you combat the argument, as put already today by no campaigners, that it makes no sense to give the same politicians more power to get things even more wrong?

It was about freeing politicians up to focus on delivery, said Mr Lewis. It was also about not conflating the Assembly Government's performance so far with the powers that would be given to the Assembly as an institution and any future government that will be at the helm.

Another difficulty. If it is not about political decisions taken already by this government, why does the campaign leaflet say that "it's good to know that our National Assembly is protecting schools, skills and hospitals" - the mantra of Labour and Plaid ministers? Where's the 'clarity' in that?

It won't be easy, was the gist of the response. Future leaflets would be "sharpened up." This is, after all, a cross party campaign, one having to explain what powers have been used for so far, what a 'yes' vote would mean and how more powers could be used in future. "That's the tightrope we're having to walk". In other words, we concede now that there'll be an occasional wobble.

The biggest difficulty of all? Answering the turnout question. What is 'enough' to be significant, or reasonable or, indeed, legitimate. By his own admission the response from the chair was "a soup of an answer". The gist of it was, I think, that a 'yes' vote is the right decision and what's most important is that after the vote, the majority understand what took place. That's what legitimacy is about, that's how you measure the significance of a 'yes' vote, not how many actually vote on the day. You're welcome to pick the bones out of that one.

Not everyone will take to Roger Lewis' style. Be under no illusion: he's as tough as they come but his puppyish enthusiasm will carry some along, grate on others. Even a fan of the YesforWales group comments on Facebook that "I'm 150% with you. Its a pity that WRU chap Lewis is fronting it, he enunciates like some born again christian who's been Eisteddfod trained".

That is why, perhaps, you will also hear from those 'ordinary voters' over the coming weeks - the teacher from Barry who feels that Welsh ministers have rightly put the well-being of children first, the student from Aberystwyth who thanks her lucky stars that decisions on fees taken in Wales are different to those taken in Westminster and the food bank manager from Ebbw Vale who was sceptical about the need for an Assembly in 1997 but who whose experience of gaining access to decision makers and changing things at grassroots level has persuaded him that it's time for more devolving of power.

You won't know their faces and that is the point. All four party leaders want a 'yes' vote. They really want a 'yes' vote and they've calculated theyr'e more likely to get one if they, for the next eight weeks, stand back sometimes and let Roger Lewis and his pack take the strain.

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