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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Spin control in Welsh Labour

Reports of the latest censoring of Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, by the Downing Street spin machine have stirred some memories. The Western Mail recounts how back in July, Mr. Hain sought to make some very valid points about income tax, by suggesting that high earners may need to pay more. He was reportedly slapped down by the Prime Minister following objections from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both this incident and the one reported today have been justified by the Ministerial code, which states that Ministers are not meant to deviate from official Government policy. Back in July, the Welsh Firts Minister, Rhodri Morgan is quoted as saying that "It should be possible to have a debate on the way that the Government raises revenue through tax. It's an incredibly important issue and a suggestion for a debate should not be met with this level of hysteria." This closing of ranks in Wales, involving a First Minister, who has been famous in the past for being off-message was no surprise to anybody. It is however instructive to observe how Rhodri runs his own Government. There are not too many off-message speeches from Cabinet Ministers there. That could be, of course, because they all agree, but an incident that involved me when I was a Deputy Minister leads me to think otherwise. Control freakery is as alive and well in Rhodri Morgan's Government as it is at Westminster.

A decision was taken by the then Minister for Planning that in my view would jeopardise the important development of a film studio in my region. The refusal to allow a new junction on the M4 to facilitate traffic to "Valleywood" at Llanilid seemed to many to make its development very problematic indeed. As a local member I put out a press release criticising the decision. The next thing I know my mobile rings while I am on a train. It is the First Minister berating me for breaking the Ministerial code and speaking out on behalf of my constituents. It was made clear to me that my freedom to represent my constituents in the way I thought best was inconsistent with the Ministerial code. As it happened this conflict did not occur again so I was not put in the position whereby I would tell Rhodri where to stick his job, but the whole incident was instructive to me as to the real nature of Welsh Labour and of Rhodri Morgan. Perhaps Mr. Morgan should look to his own style of Government and its similarity with the Prime Minister's before encouraging UK Ministers to break the ministerial code, otherwise some of his own Ministers may take him literally.

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