What do Cameron's First Minister talks mean?


Prime Minister David Cameron has held talks with the First Ministers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, focusing on spending cuts. BBC correspondents give their take on the new joint committee of Westminster and devolved administration leaders.


The committee may be joint but the ministers taking part have decidedly different perspectives.

For David Cameron, it is part of his respect agenda: taking the devolved institutions seriously, working in consort with the devolved administrations.

With regard to Scotland, this serves two purposes. It helps to counter the lingering impression that the Tories are remote from Scotland, "other than Scottish": an impression reinforced when they previously stood out against Scottish self-government.

Secondly, for the prime minister, it contrives to side-step the small problem that the Tories have but one MP in Scotland. What do Cameron's talks mean?

"No," they can say, "we are not governing Scotland as a tiny minority north of the border. We are working co-operatively with the elected SNP Scottish Government."

It helps, too, that their coalition partners have more Scottish seats than the SNP.

For the nationalists? Perhaps three distinct purposes. Firstly, it underlines the status of the devolved government. The JMC (Joint Ministerial Committee) fell into disuse in the early days of devolution partly because Labour minister (in Westminster) talked informally to Labour minister (in Edinburgh) - but also because the Whitehall world-view featured Holyrood as a department, rather than a government: as a subordinate cause.

Secondly, Alex Salmond plans to use the JMC to press for specific concessions on spending: for example, the demand that the devolved territories should get their Barnett consequential share of money spent regenerating London off the back of the Olympics. Expect the UK government to make concessions, where possible, but also to evangelise on the need for spending cuts.

Thirdly, the JMC fits with Mr Salmond's longer-term strategy - which is to work consensually and sensibly within the existing UK structure while simultaneously inviting the people of Scotland to conclude that much more could be done with enhanced powers and, ultimately, independence.


It's been a somewhat rocky ride so far in relations between the Welsh Assembly Government and the new coalition government at Westminster. Claim and counter-claim have been hurled up and down the M4 about the preparations - or not - for the referendum on further powers for the assembly.

So the Joint Ministerial Committee will have been a welcome opportunity to get round the table formally, and thrash out many of the issues affecting Wales. First Minister Carwyn Jones and his deputy, Ieuan Wyn Jones, will have found kindred spirits in many ways in their Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, as the devolved administrations have been working together pretty effectively - even before the general election.

Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones can speak more freely than he could before when his party was in power at Westminster.

As well as wrestling with the in-year cuts and weighing up the Hobson's choice of cut now or defer till later, the assembly government is also looking ahead to the Comprehensive Spending Review and its implications for Wales.

So how is the assembly government going to deal with the budget reductions ahead?

The main message is calmness - less a slash and burn, more a managerial and partnership approach. The main public sector trades unions have been very much brought on board.

I get the strong impression that, contrary to the approach at Westminster, the assembly government isn't going to ring-fence any budget areas here. The obvious one, health, is so huge that the others would be decimated if that happened. There is cabinet consensus that all areas will have to make cuts.

Money will now be spent according to very clearly defined priorities - schools, skills and health. But ministers are under no illusions whatsoever about what's coming down the track.


When it comes to saving money, the prime minister may be tempted to ask Northern Ireland's political leaders to look in the mirror.

With 108 Assembly members, 15 different ministers and a long list of special advisers, some believe it is hard for Stormont to justify such big government for a small nation.

It is still not clear where First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will swing the axe, to cope with the planned £128m cut from the Northern Ireland budget this year. Ministers have yet to decide whether all of the cutbacks will be enforced immediately or lumped together with next year's reductions.

The best guess is that they will opt for a third way - partial cuts this year.

Whatever decision they take, it is going to hurt.

It seems the blame game has begun.

Before the Downing Street meeting with David Cameron, Martin McGuinness said: "Cutting frontline services is not a necessity - it is a political decision being taken by a British cabinet full of millionaires.

"No doubt if the Tories continue along this track there will be a negative impact on our administration."

The truth is it has not been decided yet where exactly the axe will fall.

All we know is no-one wants their fingerprints to be found.

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