Challenge facing new Secretary of State

John Osmond questions how long we can expect to see the Wales Office hang on in London

It’s hard to see what difference the appointment of Clwyd West MP David Jones, as Secretary of State for Wales in place of Cheryl Gillan, will make. The pecking order in the Cabinet will not change, and neither will the wider influence of the Wales Office in Whitehall – two vital elements in pushing Welsh interests where it counts.

True, David Jones represents a Welsh constituency and has learnt to speak Welsh effectively, which is a plus for Conservative public relations and, perhaps, a victory for the pressure brought to bear by Welsh Conservatives in Cardiff Bay. On the other hand, his right wing instincts and his past declared distaste for the devolution project are hardly likely to make him a welcome visitor let alone a bosom pal on the fifth floor of Ty Hywel in the Bay.

This last encapsulates the challenge for David Jones. Can he put in place a more effective partnership between the Welsh Government and the Wales Office than has existed in recent times?

There is a very real sense that we no longer have a ‘Team Wales’ operating on our behalf at Westminster. There used to be a Welsh Parliamentary Party that on key occasions could transcend tribal politics and speak, more or less effectively, with a single voice. The campaign around Tryweryn comes to mind, as does the push over some decades for the position of Secretary of State itself.

What is left of the Welsh Parliamentary Party today? Where was the common position even on the very number of Welsh MPs at Westminster itself – reduced from 40 to 30 one day, and pushed back up to 40 the next, purely as a result of a fallout within the coalition on the reform of the House of Lords?

It was noteworthy, for instance, that when a Bill went through the House of Commons earlier this year devolving airport taxes to Northern Ireland, there was no Welsh voice making the case on behalf of Wales and an ailing Cardiff Airport.

Arguably the coming of the National Assembly, now enjoying primary legislative powers following last year’s referendum, has permanently changed the political architecture, with the centre of gravity displaced from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. But that is not to say that vital Welsh concerns do not remain at Westminster. You have only to think of university tuition fees, or the relevance of the location of London airport developments. Most crucially the size of the Welsh budget is determined there through the operation of the Barnett formula, as will any decision about changing it to a dispensation that more fairly reflects the needs of Wales.

Cheryl Gillan’s finest hour was probably the decision to extend rail electrification at least as far as Cardiff on the Great Western line. Though it is impossible to judge at this distance how influential she was in this decision – or what role David Jones himself played – her role can hardly have been negligible, even if the business case was indisputably positive.

There has been much speculation as to how long a British Prime Minister will want to clog up Cabinet positions with representatives from each of the devolved territories – not least because the British Cabinet is now large even by past British standards, and larger than in many other developed democracies. Now that relative peace has been restored to Northern Ireland – and this week the word relative has some meaning – the argument has grown for there to be a single Secretary of State for the devolved territories, perhaps with Ministers of State looking after the particular interests of each one.

So long as Scotland, with its independence referendum looming in 2014, presents a threat of instability to the union, politics suggests there will be no change in this direction. However, once the Scottish issue is decided, one way or another, can we anticipate an amalgamation of the territorial offices? Perhaps in anticipation of this, the Welsh Government opened its own new office in London in July, bringing together two existing offices – one in the Wales Office’s Gwydyr House and the other at Portland House. Headed up by former Visit Wales chief Jonathan Jones, the new office based in the Conservative Party’s former HQ in Victoria Street has seven full-time staff. It has a threefold role:

  • to build on existing relationships with the UK Government, embassies, organisations and public bodies
  • to provide a hot desk base for Welsh Government ministers and officials on official business
  • to encourage financial and professional services firms to relocate and invest in Wales.

As First Minister Carwyn Jones put it:

“London is one of the world’s great commercial cities and it’s on our doorstep. We can use this to our advantage, as a gateway to access global markets and potential investors. Our new office will focus on raising Wales’ profile and make sure we pursue every opportunity out there. It is for us as a nation to make our own opportunities in the world and our London office will play a key role in this.”

Realistically, the new office is not at present going to be at the forefront of relationships with the UK Government. But these are relatively small beginnings. The ambition is high, and you can see how, if circumstances conspire to allow it, this new office could at some point supplant Gwydyr House. Indeed, it might even take over those premises. Meanwhile, the acid test of David Jones’ relevance will be how far his efforts make that outcome seem undesirable.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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