New Welsh Secretary faces a delicate challenge
From this column’s perspective, the replacement of David Jones as Secretary of State for Wales is almost certainly the most important change of scenery that will come of this reshuffle – although given the attention paid to education reform, Gove’s departure ranks close second.
The impression one gets from the Welsh media is one of relief. Martin Shipton, the chief reporter at Wales Online, claims that: “Carwyn Jones and Andrew RT Davies rarely agree on anything, but in their different ways both will be glad to see the back of David Jones as Secretary of State for Wales.”
As a devo-minimalist, Jones frustrated both men who, as devolved politicians are wont, are keen to see their own powers expanded. According to the BBC’s Welsh political editor, Nick Servini, he was viewed as a ‘blocker’ who would disrupt devolution ‘for the sake of it’.
Not only did Jones’ working-to-rule on the Silk Commission frustrate Carwyn (who I hope will forgive the use of first-name terms in this instance), but Davies had to sack four members of his Assembly front-bench after they took Jones’ minimalist line on income-tax devolution (you might recall from an earlier column that the Welsh public are markedly less uniform in their enthusiasm for tax devolution than their political class).
So on the one hand, Crabb has to try to mend fences and work productively with the Welsh establishment. Yet to do this, there are two significant hurdles that he must navigate.
The first is the Conservative Party’s ‘compare and contrast’ strategy, wherein the various travails of the Welsh government are held up as examples of what happens if you give Labour its head. The party’s most senior figures have engaged in this – Cameron branded Offa’s Dyke“the line between life and death” due to the Welsh government’s NHS problems, whilst Gove’s spirited attack on their disastrous education policies in the Western Mail was covered by this column a few weeks ago.
Jones pulled no punches in joining that battle, which doubtless further strained relations with Carwyn Jones’ government. Jones will need to decide whether he is a warrior of the government in the Welsh arena or a conciliator, working quietly with the Welsh establishment whilst others lay down the fire.
The other hurdle is the constitution: in 2007, Crabb wrote a fiercely devo-sceptical article for this very website. Although it’s unlikely he’ll be so freely-spoken as Secretary of State – a role he has described as ‘meaningless and empty’ – it would be unusual if constitutional developments in the last seven years have caused him to doubt his fears about the ‘hollowing out’ of the United Kingdom.
Nor has the conduct of the Welsh and Scottish governments done much to blunt his criticisms of the dynamic that sees devolved politicians of all stripes banding together against Westminster to shift the blame in times of difficulty and to accrue more power for themselves. Much of the hostility Jones attracted appears to stem from his devo-scepticism, and Crabb will have to walk a fine line between repeating that mistake and getting his head captured by the Cardiff Bay establishment.
However, there is an upside. Whatever the outcome, this country will soon be working its way through the aftermath of the Scottish referendum. Figures from both parties, including Carwyn Jones, are calling for a joined-up, comprehensive constitutional settlement that addresses the West Lothian Question and, hopefully, brings an end to several decades of damaging, piecemeal fragmentation.
With his pragmatic acceptance of fiscal devolution but clear-sighted understanding of the danger posed to the UK by the constant erosion of ‘British’ government, Crabb could play a valuable role in that process.
Stormont flirts with crisis as it fails to balance its books
The tensions riven through the devolved legislature in Northern Ireland have been further exposed this week, as an on-going row over the budget prevents Stormont from going into recess.
The executive has ‘underspent’ by £80m. Ordinarily this money must be passed back to the Treasury, but each devolved government receives a grace period of a few months in which they can distribute such money. Stormont has already allocated the sum for various capital projects.
But the enmity between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, the ‘duopoly’ that dominate Stormont under Ulster’s all-must-have-prizes-and-share system of government, means that they might not get the books signed off before the ‘carry over’ period runs out. The two parties need to approve the June monitoring round, which consists mostly of cuts.
On top of this, Belfast stands to lose an additional £34m over the British government’s welfare reform. As previously reported in this column, Sinn Fein has blocked the NI Executive from adopting them – in the process breaking a fundamental ‘principle of parity’ which has by convention been part of Northern Irish devolution. As a result, Westminster has cut the amount of money passed to Belfast in the block grant.
The “sense of crisis and doom” which looms over Stormont feels like a society living on ‘a loan from Wonga’, according to one commentator.
David Ford, leader of the cross-community, border-neutral Alliance Party, has called for a ‘reboot’ of the Stormont system to try to break the deadlock. His proposed reforms include the totemic issue of voluntary coalition – allowing the parties to form a governing alliance as they wished via negotiation, rather than being locked into mandatory all-party coalition as now. He also wants the introduction of a formal opposition and the end of sectarian designations in the Assembly.
If adopted, these measures would transform the NI Assembly into something approximating a normal parliamentary institution, which would be well to the good if it could be made to work.
It would also, coincidentally I’m sure, greatly enhance the power and status of the Alliance Party as the cross-communal kingmakers. That seems to be a common, yellow thread through constitutional reform efforts on both sides of the water.
Scotland runs out of bricks as ‘Help to Buy’ drives building boom
A house building boom has seen demand for bricks in Scotland dramatically outstrip available stocks. The sudden upswing has taken place since last spring and exposed how badly this sector of the construction industry was hurt by the recession.
Scotland only has one domestic brick-making firm, Raeburn Brick Ltd, whereas there were six in 2006. Raeburn manages to meet about 15 per cent of Scotland’s current requirements, leaving the rest to be taken up by external suppliers. Yet with the brick shortage apparently affecting the entire UK English suppliers are also stretched – one company has seen deliveries into Scotland from the rest of the UK fall by 25 per cent compared to 2013.
The Scottish government expanded the scheme in May, which will bring the total sum channelled into the housing market before it expires in March 2016 to £275m.
Church of Ireland’s first female bishop welcomes Church of England’s vote
Rt Rev Pat Storey, the bishop of Meath and Kildare, has welcomed the Church of England’s decision to allow the consecration of women bishops, remarking that whilst it was a ‘painful’ decision for some there was “no going back”.
“It is a positive moment in which the contribution and gifts of women are now to be used at all levels of church leadership. It feels as though the time is right”, she said.
BBC staff strike to mar opening of Commonwealth Games
Three unions representing BBC employees are leading their members out in a one-day strike, scheduled for the opening day of this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The National Union of Journalists, Unite and Bectu will lead ‘thousands’ of journalists and technical staff out over the BBC’s latest pay offer. This will then be followed by a ‘work to rule’.