Life Under the Tories 2: How Much Do We Know?

There are still many gaps in the Tory blueprint for government, and not all of them can be explained away by lack of knowledge about  the public finances. Perhaps it’s the opposition-itis after 12 years out of power that slavishly reacts to Government announcements without – six months before an election – trying to answer the question: ‘What would you do?’

Last month Conservative Campaign Headquarters put out briefing notes to respond to the Queen’s Speech to highlight their priorities – Health and Education (in England). I asked for something similar for Welsh voters on non-devolved areas and was politely advised to talk to “local parties”. Perhaps the Tories just want to keep their powder dry but it has been incredibly frustrating  for journalists to try to find out the impact of a new-look Cameron Conservative Government on Wales. The shadow Wales Office team gave up weekly briefings (in fact any regular briefings) more than a year ago.

There’s always the possibility that the Welsh media have spent more time thinking about the specific impact of a Cameron Government on Wales than the Tories have. Anyway, here goes with my best stab of what the Tories have in store for us.

ELECTION 2010 – WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

David Cameron has talked of cutting  the number of Ministers – as well as their pay. But the Wales Office is expected to survive, despite  mooted reductions at the Scotland Office – as LCOs keep the junior Wales Office Ministers – and staff – busier than they’ve been since 1999.

Cheryl Gillan has suggested that a Minister in each department will be asked to look out for Welsh interests –  not a role likely to thrill ambitious junior Ministers but a policy designed to counter perceptions that Whitehall doesn’t get devolution.

THE ECONOMY

George Osborne will hold an emergency Budget within 50 days of the election – before the Commons rises for its summer  recess. David Cameron has said  the number one priority is cutting public debt –  so expect both spending cuts and tax rises. Many would argue both are inevitable whoever wins the election.

The Tories are promising a public sector pay freeze for 2011 – not an obvious election-winning strategy for the 300,000-plus public sector workers in Wales.

GOVERNMENT

The Conservatives say they would – in their first session – take steps to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent across the UK. They deny Labour claims that Wales would lose disproportionately – unless the Welsh vote yes to further law-making powers.

The Tories, as we know, won’t block an Assembly request for a referendum – one elephant trap they will avoid. But they’ve agreed to allow their MPs to have a free vote on the issue so with more Welsh Tories at Westminster expect more tensions with their colleagues in Cardiff Bay.

It still remains their intention to implement a system at Westminster of ‘English votes for English laws’, following the recommendations from a policy group chaired by the former Chancellor Ken Clarke. The idea is aimed mainly at the Scots. It is Conservatives’ solution to the so-called West Lothian question which asks why Scots MPs should be allowed to vote on English matters at Westminster when English MPs cannot do the same in relation to Scottish matters which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. How English votes for English laws would operate in practice will involve the Speaker in a lot of constitutional ingenuity. It would only impact in Wales once the National Assembly has won greater legislative powers following a referendum.

BARNETT FORMULA

The Conservatives are committed to reviewing the Barnett formula  but it is not a priority. The default (English) Tory perspective at Westminster, for all the commissions and conventions, is that the Barnett formula allows the English to subsidise freebies for the Scots. The Tories say they’ll produce their own White Paper on the funding of the Scottish Parliament, taking account of  the Calman Commission recommendations on giving the Parliament more tax-raising powers. The idea is to make the Parliament more accountable to the voters and reduce its ability to blame Westminster for financial woes. There are senior Labour people – such as Ed Balls – who would be content to see something similar for Wales but I’d guess it will take a few years of complaints about meagre rations from Westminster before a Tory Government would act. And everyone agrees that would require yet another referendum.

TRANSPORT

Will the Conservatives go ahead with plans  to electrify the railway line between London and Swansea? (Will Labour? is another question). Shadow Transport Secretary, Teresa Villiers, said in response to July’s announcement:

“Further electrification of our railways will be an important way to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions from transport, but Gordon Brown is living in a fantasy land if he thinks this comes for free, without any cost to the taxpayer. Yet again Labour are maxing out Network Rail’s credit card, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill. After Lord Mandelson announced cuts to the transport budget, how can we believe that Labour can announce £1.1 billion of new spending without impacting on existing transport commitments or putting further strain on public finances already stretched to breaking point?”

Probably not, then?

DEFENCE

The Conservatives are promising a major defence review. There is no evidence of a firm commitment to the Defence Training College at St Athan and given the upfront costs and continuing opposition in some military quarters it looks vulnerable. “It doesn’t look as if it stacks up” as one frontbencher put it.

ENERGY

The days of “Vote Blue, Go Green” seem a long way away. Nuclear is no longer ‘a last resort’ and the Conservatives support Labour (at Westminster) in wanting to build another nuclear power station at Wylfa. The Tories say their support is conditional on there being no public subsidy, a challenge in the current climate, but EDF have apparently said they can do it without subsidy.

The Severn Barrage? I’ve struggled to find any words from Greg Clark, shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, on the barrage options.

JUSTICE

A prison in north Wales? Unlikely under Labour. A prison for north Wales? More likely, but built east of the border. What would the Tories do? Do they know? Alan Duncan is still settling into the prisons brief, although he knows of the issue. The Tories have been floating again the idea of prison ships. HMP Holyhead anyone?  There is no obvious public policy commitment on prisons.

WALES

As part of Project ‘We’re not an English party’ Nick Bourne and his colleagues have floated the idea of having a St David’s Day Bank Holiday –  bank holidays are decided by the Treasury. Some Tory MPs find this, frankly, laughable tokenism and it’s a policy that tends to appear in Assembly manifestoes – “seek to establish St David’s Day as a national holiday” – but not in Parliamentary ones. David Cameron could surprise us by offering Wales the chance to replace another holiday with a March 1 day off but I wouldn’t bet on it.

David Cornock is BBC Wales’s Parliamentary Correspondent at Westminster.

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