Cameron and Jones clash over the future of Wales
There is no love lost between Carwyn Jones’ Welsh government and the Prime Minister. The many and varied woes of Welsh education and healthcare are being held up by the Tories as an example of what Labour does to such precious things when left to play unsupervised. But judging by this week’s headlines another showdown is brewing over the constitution.
The central question is how the Welsh Assembly government finances itself. The Welsh political class is, in the main, pushing for tax-raising powers – and after the replacement of David Jones as Welsh Secretary won a significant victory this week when the Government announced that it would no longer insist on a “lock-step” system for Welsh income tax, allowing Cardiff Bay to vary different income tax bands independently of each other.
However, Westminster is still insisting that any such tax powers are put to the people of Wales in a referendum. Now, the lack of any serious anti-devolution politics in Wales post-2000 means that such referendums have been handily won by the more powers camp to date, but despite that they’re shying away this time – with some polls showing the Welsh public remarkably divided on the subject. Jones is now insisting that there must be no referendum on tax powers until the system by which Westminster funds Wales is reformed.
Yet Cameron has responded by declaring that the Government has no plans to substantially amend Welsh funding, and urging the First Minister to take advantage of the proffered tax powers. He accuses Jones of effectively holding tax powers to ransom against the Barnett Formula, and claims that tax powers make sense regardless of the grant received by the Welsh government.
And so Welsh Labour and the Conservatives have found themselves yet another battlefield. But unlike healthcare and education, the Barnett Formula isn’t a stick that Cameron can use to beat Labour with in England.
Simultaneously championing tax reform and making Jones oppose it could be an attempt to help the Welsh Conservatives further cast themselves as the party of accountable devolution, as Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives are doing. It will be interesting to see whether this tactic pays dividends in the next couple of years.
Lib Dems seek PR by the back door…
I’ve spent a fair portion of this week watching, or at least being in the presence of, the Liberal Democrat conference on the television. It’s a strange experience for someone whose experience of party conferences is confined to the Conservatives and only goes back as far as 2009. All that leader-taking-questions, debating and voting on policy motions stuff looks very strange, if at once alluring and desperately boring.
But during Clegg’s Q&A, in the middle of another of his attacks on the Conservatives, he revealed the latest way in which constitutional reform enthusiasts are trying to use the aftermath of the Scottish referendum to bring in their pet subjects by fiat. In the case of the Lib Dems, inevitably, this is proportional representation.
Clegg, in his wisdom, has seen through our party’s newfound determination to bring in English Votes for English Laws. According to him, what we’re after is not what this site has taken to calling “justice for England” but simple party advantage. “They want Tory votes for English laws!” he explains, with an air of revelation.
Now, the leader of a party which is a Frankenstein-like fusion of two contradictory political traditions united by their belief in a voting system that would give them more seats is scarcely in a position to call us out for such things. Set against that or the Labour example (create Parliaments for our heartlands but maintain their full influence nationally) the Conservatives are very late to the constitutional gerrymandering party, even if you think that’s what we’re doing. But what is Clegg’s solution?
Apparently, it is to make it so that when an English Grand Committee is formed to consider England-only legislation (or an English and Welsh Grand Committee for such legislation, likewise), it is comprised of MPs not in proportion to the English seats their party won, but by the share of the English vote they received. Never mind that referendum defeat, just impose PR wherever you can get away with it.
…whilst Tory pledge raises questions about Northern Ireland
It is a sign of just how serious the current crisis in Northern Ireland is that the words “direct rule” are starting to be bandied about again.
I’ve not covered it in a while due to the Scottish vote, but for those with better things to remember the Northern Ireland government is currently refusing to implement the Coalition’s welfare reforms. As a result, they are incurring huge fines from the Treasury which are forcing Stormont in turn to make substantial spending cuts. Sinn Fein, seeing as nationalists always do huge political advantage in standing up to nasty Westminster, are not backing down.
Previously, direct rule (the direct government of Northern Ireland by the national government in Westminster) would be politically tricky but not constitutionally. But the principle of EVEL has interesting reverse implications. Writing for the Irish Daily Star, John Coulter raises an intriguing hypothesis: if Stormont does collapse, should only Northern Irish MPs be passing legislation that pertains only to the province?