Secretary of State for Wales says she is “neutral” on the forthcoming vote for more powers of the Assembly
On the day the Tories come to woo Wales, with David Cameron meeting the Labour and Plaid coalition leaders in the National Assembly, the new Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan strikes an uncertain note. Questioned on the BBC’s Good Morning Wales radio programme earlier today she said that she didn’t have a view and would be remaining “neutral” in the forthcoming referendum on more powers for the National Assembly.
This is an unsustainable position. As Secretary of State for Wales, whether she declares it or not, she is bound to have a position on this choice which is central to the operation of her portfolio. To fail to reveal her choice is dissembling and will be interpreted as such, not just across the political spectrum in Cardiff Bay, but amongst the wider Welsh pubic as well. To begin with, whatever the result, the outcome of the referendum will impact directly and immediately on her own department, the Wales Office, or Welsh Office as the Conservatives not want to call it.
If there was a No vote the case for the department to continue would be greatly increased. A Wales Office in Whitehall would be needed just as much as it is now to help negotiate the implementation of Legislative Competence Orders coming from Cardiff Bay through the labyrinthine procedures of Whitehall. On the other hand, if there is a Yes vote the need for the Wales Office would diminish substantially. In all probably we would be well on the way to the creation of a new territorial department combining the Wales, Scottish and Northern Ireland offices. Shouldn’t Cheryl Gillan have a view about that?
She says that she doesn’t have a say in the referendum, so it would be presumptuous for her to advise the Welsh electorate on which way to vote. Apart from emphasising her Buckinghamshire base in her Chesham and Amersham constituency, this is reminiscent of the problems Rhodri Morgan got himself into when he refused to reveal his opinion on the Iraq war. He didn’t have a vote on the matter in the House of Commons, he said, so therefore he was not going to vouchsafe his opinion. I cannot recall whether Cheryl Gillan attacked him at the time for this piece of dissembling, but I would be surprised if she didn’t.
In one stroke this morning she dug a big chunk out of the bridgehead that Nick Bourne, Conservative leader in the National Assembly, has been constructing over the past decade to reposition the Tories as a devolution friendly party. For instance, he will have been pleased with the tone of David Cameron’s missive to Wales sent ahead of his meetings in the National Assembly today:
“We will strengthen devolution with a mature relationship of collaboration – not confrontation – between Westminster and Cardiff. We will also give everyone in Wales a sense that you are in control of your own destiny, by working with the Assembly to push forward a referendum on devolving further powers over the things that matter to you.”
If that’s not emphasising the positive, I don’t know what is. In today’s interview Cheryl Gillan said Conservative party members were free to campaign and vote in the referendum on whichever side they choose. This hasn’t prevented Nick Bourne making it clear that he will be campaigning for a Yes vote for more powers. So why can’t Cheryl Gillan doing the same? Doesn’t she really have a view, or is she a closet No voter? That is to say, would she vote No if she had a vote?