Thursday, August 30, 2012

Help Midlands, North and Wales - Expand Birmingham Airport.

Very interesting letter in today's Telegraph under the heading 'Expanding Birmingham Airport would help encourage regional growth'. Its signed by several MPs, 3 of them Conservative colleagues. For years I 've thought development of international air services at Birmingham to ba a no-brainer. Lets consider the positives.

Biggest plus is that it would spread prosperity beyond the South-East, an already congested over-developed corner of Britain - greatly benefiting the North of England and Wales as well the Midlands. It would enable businesses in these areas to develop global links, which are so much more effective when they are direct links - not involving connections in one of the London airports. It would utilise the spare runway capacity that exists at Birmingham at present. And it would ensure that HS2 (if it goes ahead) would be a catalyst for moving prosperity from London to the North, rather than the reverse.

And it would benefit my constituency of Montgomeryshire. About 15 yrs ago I was involved in promoting inward investment. One of the companies was a specialist tool manufacturer from Canada named Fisher-Gauge. At the official opening I looked through the company's promotion brochures, which described its location as 'West of Birmingham'. When I expressed my disappointment that there being no mention of mid-Wales, the Chairman explained that his potential customers had never heard of it - but they had heard of Birmingham.

I have not been involved in the campaign behind today's letter. Didn't know it was so active. The letter prompted me to contact the writers to ask to be involved in the future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cheryl Gillan - Top Class SoS

Always a bit concerned when I get a mention in the threatening media - and none is more threatening to a Welsh MP that an appearance in a David Cornock or Betsan blog post - which is what happened to me today. I also made an appearance in the 'Indie' (so I'm told) making what was described as a chauvinistic comment about the Internet punch-up between ex-MP, Louise and Nadine. I deny this description absolutely. Seems I said I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of either of them - which is fair enough I think. They are both very ferocious in debate.

But back to Mr Cornock, and his blog post today. I'm entirely happy with what he wrote - perhaps a first. For months I have indeed been 'banging the drum' for my boss, Cheryl Gillan. I reckon she's done a great job as Secretary of State for Wales. On all the big issues she's called it right. She delivered the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales - which I do not believe Labour's Peter Hain would have done if he had been returned to office in 2010. She 'kicked butt' to drive it on. She badgered her Cabinet colleagues to deliver major electrification of railway lines. She succeeded in getting all party support for the Silk Commission to advise on tax raising powers and extending other powers to the National Assembly for Wales. And much else. This is a bl*****Y good record, and one which deserves the full blooded support of the MP who has served as her PPS for the last 2 years.

Now I have no idea what the Prime Minister has in mind, and of course I'll support his judgement. I do not even know if its the 'done thing' for me to write what I'm writing - and under normal circumstances I would not have done so. But the 'armchair reshufflers' got to me - commentators outside of Wales, who know little of our nation openly diminishing the achievements of a hard-working, shrewd and top class politician. Whatever, I feel better for that.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No Third Runway at Heathrow - for now anyway.

Just read Tim Yeo's article in the Telegraph today. Not impressed - not impressed at all. Just cannot believe a 'senior' colleague could write such a piece. Of course some of it made good sense, as you would expect - but that was only cover for provocative language.

Our last manifesto was absolutely clear - that's the manifesto that Tim and I and both coalition parties sought election on. We are not in favour of a 3rd runway at Heathrow - at least until we go to the people again. To simply our promise on its head before the next election would lead to major disillusionment amongst voters. I would be very disappointed indeed if such a change of policy were to happen before 2015.  I was also deeply disappointed by the turn of phrase used in the article. I accept that people who don't spend much time in the House of Commons cannot properly judge the qualities of the Prime Minister - but those of us who do know him to be a very able and strong leader.  He's certainly strong enough to stand up to pressure groups with an interest who are demanding this change of policy.

I should also add that I'm not convinced that major expansion at Heathrow is right in any case. Of course Tim Yeo makes excellent points about developing links to China and other rapidly developing economies - and its true that these would be best flying out of Heathrow. But its always seemed to me that capacity for these important developments could be increased by moving other business to Birmingham Airport. Not only would this ease much of the pressure on Heathrow but would spread some of the South East prosperity to the rest of the country. Be good news for North and Mid Wales as well.

But I do feel fortunate not to be involved in the decision making process about future airport capacity.

Monday, August 27, 2012

How to say 'Danny Boyle Test' in Welsh

Been trying to grasp what Damian Green meant when he wrote in today's Telegraph "Tories have to pass the Danny Boyle test". Seems its something to do with us being 'modern', and liking modern Britain, and not wanting to return to policies that defined the Conservative Party in the past. In general I agree with Damian about this (I think), but cannot see what its got to do with Danny Boyle. Don't much like the word 'modern' either. Sounds too much like Blair's meaningless language. But on refection, Blair was rather successful, so can't dismiss it out of hand.

Anyway I was looking for a Welsh perspective. What can the Danny Boyle test (modernism) mean for a Welsh MP. Seems to me it can only apply to 'devolution' - our attitude towards it, how we see the process developing, and how we cope with the challenges it throws up. And I really do think there's an issue here.

When I was asked before the General Election what role I thought I could play as an MP, I invariably said I wanted to "contribute to an effective working relationship between the UK Gov't and the Welsh Gov't".  Its not worked out like that - mainly because I was appointed a PPS almost as soon as I was elected. Convention dictates that PPSs do not adopt or publicly express firm opinions on issues which their bosses have responsibility for. So I'll confine myself to two innocent observations (which you might find obvious and uncontroversial anyway). Firstly the UK and Welsh Gov'ts should share objectives and information as far as is realistically possible in the interests of Wales (and I accept the word 'realistically' is elastic). And secondly, my own party will prosper only if those who represent it in Cardiff and Westminster work solidly for and with each other, in our separate parliaments and together. We are almost half way through this Parliament, and if boundary changes go through I may well be half way through my time as an MP. Makes me think. Of course, none of this has anything to do with Danny Boyle. I'm no further forward on that one.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reflections on Prince Harry at the Snooker Table

There's only one issue in the news today - Prince Harry going starkers to the snooker table, along with others, at a private party. Everyone seems to have an opinion - and everyone I've talked to has dismissed it as of no importance. Not sure that's right. Certainly worth a comment.

There will be no moralising from me. I still recall leaping out the communal post-match bath at Shrewsbury Rugby Club one mid-winter afternoon, and along with others entering a foot race around the pitch in a snowstorm. I must leave details of this silliness out - but I can say that when we returned to the clubhouse, the changing room door was locked and the only way in was through the bar - which was of course a mixed bar. I do not recall anyone being offended. That was when I learnt that in extreme cold, all embarrassment withers away! I was around 20 at the time. Such silly behaviour is what lads sometimes do.

But its important because Prince Harry is 3rd in line to the throne. I just don't think it was a very sensible thing for him to do. Without being absolutely certain that everyone present would never let him down, there was always the chance of a photograph appearing. Its like the House of Commons Terrace. Every MP knows that any misdemeanour will be picked up by a long lens camera on Westminster Bridge.

I also accept that it can be argued that the pictures are in the public interest. He is heir to the throne. So I do not think there should be a law which bans publication. Such a law could be used to over-regulate free speech. But neither do I think that the Sun should have published the pictures on its front page today. Just because you can does not mean you should. It just made it look like a sleazy tawdry rag. Most sickening I thought was the Sun's 'freedom of speech' justification. It was just a way of selling more copies of the newspaper. I wish I took the Sun - so that I could cancel my order.

Finally, I have to admit that the story has caused me amusement. Kelvin Mackenzie was hilarious on Newsnight last night. And there was jollity in my office today. Now it needs to be forgotten. Whatever, I reckon the splendid Prince Harry will not want to play strip snooker again in a hurry.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Exporting NHS expertise overseas for commercial benefit

Can't decide how significant is today's story about the establishment of a new Gov't agency to link world renowned British hospitals with countries overseas. There has certainly been a lot of hot air expended over the issue. I suppose the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital at Gobowen could be considered an example of a world class Foundation Trust hospital which has an international reputation. So this issue could have a local interest for me.

In principle, I can see the potential - assuming all that is said about the high quality of our NHS is justified. Its not even a new idea. It actually builds on the last Labour Gov'ts plans to establish what former Sec. of State for Health, Andy Burnham's referred to as 'NHS Global' - the aim being to exploit the NHS's commercial potential overseas. But I certainly need to know more about how such a plan would work in detail before committing to it wholeheartedly. Seems to me that the private sector or overseas Gov't would need to put up the finance. Not sure why some are so outraged by the idea.  No-one objects to the free movement of doctors and nurses across international boundaries, (our NHS would collapse without it) so why be concerned about the free movement of expertise - which is what we are talking about.

Today's announcement certainly puts an interesting perspective on Danny Boyle's tribute to the NHS at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Today that looks like a massive marketing exercise, playing to a watching world. Not sure that I can see this proposal taking off in a big way though, but could be wrong about this. All we cannot allow is for it to be a distraction from delivering quality healthcare services in the UK. No reason why in should do. But I do anticipate bucketloads of mindless scaremongering. On balance I'm rather supportive of the proposal.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Should it be a 'Welsh Parliament'.

Mr Andrew RT Davies, Leader of the Conservative Assembly Group is beginning to make his mark on Wales. Last week, he set about raising a few eyebrows. He will have engaged widely with his frankness in making public the difficulty he found reading as a young boy. People like honest and open politicians. And he was not afraid to make clear his disagreement with the cancellation of last year's Welsh Conservative Conference. Again its the lack of pretence that impresses. Andrew's not afraid to say it as he sees it.  He didn't agree, and felt comfortable saying so.

But much the most interesting, eyebrow-raising statement he made last week was that he believes the National Assembly for Wales should be renamed the Welsh Parliament. Its probably best if I don't express any firm opinion on this, while I'm a PPS in the Wales Office. But a couple of things do occur to me. While there may be some resistance to a legal change of name, there is nothing to prevent Andrew RT asking all of his AMs to use the term 'Welsh Parliament' whenever they have the chance. If all AMs, across all parties actually referred always to the 'Welsh Parliament', that's what it would be - no matter what it says on some legal document. In fact, I've sometimes used the term myself when seeking to differentiate between the 'UK Parliament' and the 'Welsh Parliament'.

Perhaps more interesting is why the still new leader of the Conservative Group has decided to make an issue of this. Its clear that he wants the Conservatives in Wales to stand very proud of its 'Welshness' - and rightly so. Following the granting to the National Assembly of the power to pass law, Andrew sees it as a 'Parliament'. None of this surprises me. Not today anyway. I've known Andrew a long time, and it might have surprised me 10 yrs ago. But, like me and others, he's realised that along with devolution came a new awareness of 'Welshness'. I've always thought that regional distinctiveness is important, particularly when the 'region' is a nation. Across the world, its a right-of-centre philosophy. Yes, Andrew RT Davies is proving to be an astute and interesting leader.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Coalition Sunday Morning Health Check.

Agreed to enter into discussion with Lord (Mike) German about the current state and prospects of the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition - Sunday Supplement on BBC RadioWales (8.10am). Anticipate quite a bit of common ground between us - though I expect Mike will try to spin things a bit (as I of course never would!). In general, I reckon we'll agree the Coalition will survive the current flurry of turbulence, as both parties focus on the main reason we came together in the first place - coping with the economic storm breaking around the UK economy. But don't suppose this will be what Vaughan Roderick will be interested in. It'll be the turbulence for him.

Basic position is that Lords reform is dead - and Nick Clegg has said he's going to instruct his MPs to vote against the new Parliamentary constituency boundaries. Two big issues. Personally, I cannot see why they should be linked. But the Deputy Prime Minister thinks otherwise. Don't agree with him, but I'm not as critical as many. I understand why the Lib Dems feel so let down. They have always been obsessed with constitutional change - and all their hopes in this policy area seem to have bitten the dust. They feel very let down. So why should they agree to something that damages their cause and helps that of the Conservatives. Bitterness can be an illogical force, even when it is understandable. But the consequences of this have certainly left me scratching my head.

The proposed new boundaries obliterate my constituency of Montgomeryshire. They leave me with no seat to defend in 2015 - and after all the work I've put in. I've been proceeding on the understanding that to continue as an MP after 2015, I'd have to seek selection for somewhere else. Despite Nick Clegg's statement, (which on the face of it seems to knock new boundaries on the head) it seems my party is continuing to prepare on this basis. But it may be that both Labour and Lib Dems will immediately begin preparing to fight Montgomeryshire again. Already we've seen a letter that the London region Lib Dems have sent out, giving formal notice to all their candidates (after a meeting with their Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael)  informing them that the party will be selecting on existing boundaries. Yesterday, I heard that Labour in the London area is doing the same thing. No doubt my Lib Dem local party will soon begin campaigning on a Montgomeryshire basis. Hope I'm not left scratching my head for too long.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Campaigning styles - Lebanon v Montgomeryshire

Thought I'd call at National Grid's meeting at Cefn Coch today where they were explaining their decision to site a 20 acre electricity substation there. BBC/S4C came up to interview me about an outrageous suggestion made by NG that some of my comments may have promoted threatening behaviour against their staff. I'd been so stunned by the letter sent to me that I'd published it this morning - together with my response. Media wanted to talk about it.

Anyway, it turned out to be an 'event' not to be missed. Cefn Coch has never seen anything like it. Never been 10 policemen in Cefn Coch at the same time before. And there was 'the beast' - a gloriously muscled Gladiator type, dressed in black jeans and t-shirt, leaning on cars like Gene Hunt. Made us local men look a bit second rate in the eyes of the ladies present. And then the Cefn Coch Steel Band arrived. Actually, the instruments were a few oil drums. Never heard such a din - which sounded quite beautiful to me. And then the steel band led a march of banner waving parents and children around the village hall - with singing and trumpets. It was a scene of smiling faces and joyousness - except for the white faced NG officials who had never seen anything like it before. In truth, I hadn't either. Police were quickly stationed on the doors and it looked as if poor mesmerised souls inside felt totally marooned. They had been expecting to recite their 'meaningless' lines about why its essential for the national interest that our countryside and heritage must be trashed. Instead, they couldn't make themselves heard above the Cefn Coch Steel Band - which was only formed at 6.00. I predict X-Factor next series.

I had retreated some distance from this media show. Its a people's protest, and I'm only wheeled out if called on. Was having a chat with the driver of the NG coach, when an obviously non-local man (leather and ponytail) started shouting at me to lead the crowd into the hall. His idea was that I would flatten the policeman on the door. The crowd would then follow me in and I would become a national hero following my consequent arrest. I tried to explain to him that our campaign was based on friendly legal protest led by local protesters, and that it would be a terrible mistake for me to become the story - undoing all the amazing work the protesters have done over the last two years or so. This is how we do things in Mid Wales. He explained to me that he had grown up tactics were a bit different. In the end, we agreed that if our tactics proved to be successful, I would offer my services to train campaigners in Beirut in Lebanon, where he came form.

As for the bizarre letter from National Grid which led to me going to talk to camera at Cefn Coch, the offending bit read. "I do need to say National Grid is concerned that a number of your tweets in recent weeks may be unhelpful and indeed unwittingly prompt threatening behaviour by members of the public." I have never read anything so outrageous. Clearly an attempt to pressurise me into not supporting the protesters - my constituents. Bizarre. It was me that led 2000 protesters to Cardiff Bay to a brilliant rally last year, where we left without leaving even a sweet paper behind, and had there been an exit gate, we would have closed it neatly behind us. We pride ourselves on our civility. Problem is that National Grid do not understand democracy - this odd concept of people not agreeing with them, telling them so, and continuing to tell them so. And now they have to deal with a steel band as well - which will surely reappear by popular demand.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Tough day for the Coalition - which I still back 100%

When I sign up to a deal, I like it to be 100% - even if I might not have been that keen on it in the first place. In May 2010, I signed up to a coalition with my long standing political opponents, the Liberal Democrats. Since then my commitment to the coalition has grown. I began with great admiration for a party that accepted that their manifesto for the 2010 General election was not deliverable in Gov't, and decided to put the interests of our country first by going into coalition with the Conservatives in order to repair the damage that Labour had inflicted on the British economy. They took a big hit. Its been an incredibly difficult journey for the Lib Dems, made much more so by two massive disappointments - the AV referendum and Lords reform. On both issues I disagreed with Nick Clegg, but I can see what huge blows they were to his party members.

Today, Nick Clegg announced that Lords reform is dead in this Parliament. He also said that he would instruct his MPs to vote against the new constituency boundaries. This was a big deal, and has led to much condemnation from some of my colleagues. I don't think they are being realistic. While I don't accept Nick Clegg's assertion that the issues of Lords reform and constituency boundaries are linked, I can see that he has to respond to the discontent in his party. If he were just to take the Lords reform defeat on the chin, without response, he would have great problems at the Lib Dem conference.  I am not prepared to join in the ritual 'kicking' of the Deputy Prime Minister - always the pragmatist.

Difficult to predict what will happen to the constituency boundaries bill now. Many assume its dead - but it seems there will still be an attempt to drive it through. It certainly leaves many Tory MPs in a very uncertain position. Where two existing MPs findn themselves forced to compete for a seat, they will have to begin 'campaigning' very soon. Other MPs (including me) do not know whether they have a seat to defend or not. Its also uncertain where the votes would come from to drive the boundary changes through - unless Nick Clegg changes his mind (which seems unlikely). Perhaps the cloud will clear over the next few days.

Whatever, I will be returning to Westminster on Sept 3rd, totally committed to working with my Lib Dem coalition colleagues, trying desperately to put today's statement by Nick Clegg and its consequences behind us. Seems to me that its the grown-up way to behave.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Complexity of making law in Devolved Wales

I'd been intending to post about The Local Government Bylaws (Wales) Bill. Now don't just switch off. Its really quite interesting. But it does depend on your being interested in how Wales is governed. Been prompted to blog now because have just read Matt Withers' take on this in his Wales on Sunday column today.

The Bill itself is strikingly inconsequential - except that it is the first bill passed by the Welsh Government since it was granted new law making powers last year. The purpose of the bill is to give to local authorities the power to pass bye-laws. Seems rather a good idea to me - and probably most people. But in achieving its purpose, the bill removes the power from the Welsh Government and the UK Government to confirm the relevant bye-laws. The problem arises because the Welsh Government does not have the 'competence' to remove power from the UK Gov't. That is the law - as it stands now. Matt seems to think this came as a surprise to everyone. Well it was not a surprise to me. I've known this has been under discussion for a long time.

Now, I have absolutely no objection to the content of the bill becoming law. Neither would I object to changing constitutional arrangements to prevent this sort of thing happening. But the constitutional settlement must be changed first. The Secretary of State for Wales has established the Silk Commission which will be looking at just this sort of issue - after its reported on how fiscal accountability can be vested in the Welsh Government this autumn. The thing about constitutional law is that you cannot just make it up as you go along. And its very amateurish to try.

This issue is of minuscule interest. But the same sort of difficulty could arise over the Welsh Gov'ts desire to change the organ donation system to one based 'presumed consent'. A bill to do this will be of much greater interest - both to me and more widely. When this matter was first proposed by the Welsh Gov't I was implacably opposed to it - but am much less so now. In fact, if the Bill contains a legal assurance that next of kin will always have a veto, I would personally favour going further than the Welsh Government. I would like to see the next of kin of every potential organ donor being approached in a positive sympathetic manner, rather than just those who had signed some register. But this is nothing to do with the legal point. Let me say what my personal approach would be if I were to be the decision-taker. I would not object to a bill because I didn't like it, or didn't approve of it. But if the Attorney General informed me he had doubts about the Welsh Gov'ts competence in this policy area, because of its 'human rights' implications, I would oppose it - and ask the Supreme Court to decide. That's what its for. So you can see - when its comes to it, the issue is quite simple.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Where now with Lords Reform

Several 'speculative' articles today suggesting that the Prime Minister may pull the plug on Lords reform next week. In particular, the article by Robert Winnett in the Telegraph gives an impression of being well sourced. Norman Smith of the BBC tells us with great confidence that the 'last rites' will be read next week. While I have thought there to be an inevitability about this since last month's rebellion in the House of Commons, I can see that it will could be very significant for the future of the Coalition. I can add that I would be pleased if this 'speculation' proves to be accurate. The prospect of MPs debating Lords reform for days (and perhaps nights) on end fills me with dread. The general public have very little interest in this issue and would prefer MPs to be focused on concerns about the economy.

I have seen it reported that the Liberal Democrats are totally opposed to this issue being shelved. It is an absolute 'red line' for them. Well, they cannot stop the Prime Minister 'pulling he plug' if he decides to, but there have been bloodcurdling threats about 'consequences'. The most obvious 'consequence' would be a refusal to vote through new constituency boundaries in time for the next General Election. From a personal perspective, I would be absolutely delighted if this were to happen, because it would save my constituency from obliteration, and leave me with a seat to defend.  Hope this declaration of pleasure will not cause me trouble. But from a wider 'party' perspective, it would make it more difficult for the Conservatives to win a majority in 2015.  I would not expect the prime Minister to back down on this issue. Stand off.

So what is going to happen.  Wish I knew. I do think Nick Clegg would be sensible not to push this issue. If he let it go now, and came back with more modest reform, based on Lord Steele's suggestions, I sense he may get that through and have something to offer his party supporters. Of course it would not be the reform that Lib Dems want, but it could be seen as a start. Whatever, the reaction of party activists at the Lib Dem Conference on this issue will make it compulsive viewing for their coalition partners this year. I'm rather looking forwards to it.