Posted on Our Kingdom on 18th February 2008
Just when Gordon Brown concedes there's "a very strong case" for a review of Scottish devolution, the man he appointed to represent Wales around the Cabinet table has been downplaying expectations of refreshing the Assembly's powers.
Paul Murphy told the Welsh Labour Party conference this weekend that the status of the Assembly should not be allowed to get in the way of public service delivery. A pledge to hold a fresh referendum to draw down Primary law-making powers by 2011 was a key part of the Red-Green Coalition agreement in Cardiff Bay. But Mr Murphy told party activists in Llandudno that it's public services that matter: "Those are the issues that people care most about and it's delivering those services that should be our priority," he said. "I have been called a 'devo-sceptic'", he added. "No, I am a devo-realist".
Labour were always going to struggle to deliver on the deal, but Rhodri Morgan's promise to swing Labour behind the 'Yes' campaign was crucial to luring the Welsh Nationalists away from leading a ‘Rainbow coalition' of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, which they were hours away from agreeing on. Mr Murphy was the Treasurer of the Labour 'No' campaign in 1979, so his lack of enthusiasm comes as no surprise. What does comes as a surprise though is how few people expect this part of the Coalition agreement between Plaid Cymru and Labour to be honoured - even in Plaid Cymru.
Labour insiders in Cardiff privately concede that a referendum before the next Assembly election is highly unlikely. Even though they want the powers they are not keen to fight for them in such inclement electoral weather. And a 'No' vote would not only put Primary powers off the agenda for another generation but would see Whitehall mandarins unravelling the current settlement.
Welsh Labour MPs are openly scornful of the plan. With the exception of three marginal backbenchers, the Party's representatives in Westminster are united in their caution about pushing ahead with law-making powers in the short-term. They are however, for the moment, paying lip service to the 'One Wales' agreement. A delegation of Labour backbenchers is co-operating with Assembly Members in drawing up the terms of reference for the ‘Constitutional Convention' that was agreed in the Coalition negotiations. The recently retired British Ambassador to the UN, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, has agreed to head the Convention - even though it is far from clear what the purpose of the body is. Indeed, the last time a retired UN Ambassador was tasked with finding a way forward Welsh Labour MPs felt no compunction in ignoring his recommendations. Lord Ivor Richard's unanimously agreed report is gathering dust on Rhodri Morgan's shelf.
And it is the position of the First Minister himself that is further complicating the picture. Rhodri Morgan's long goodbye is unhelpful. He's determined to hang on until his 70th birthday in September 2009, at which point the Coalition is likely to be entering its most tense phase. Any successor will struggle to get sufficient public recognition to usefully lead a referendum campaign (the last public survey showed over 40% of Welsh voters didn't even know who Rhodri Morgan was). Vaughan Roderick, one of the most astute observers of Welsh politics, believes it is still possible for Mr Morgan to deliver the deal before retiring, but I'm yet to be convinced.
The failure to deliver on the promise would not only have far reaching consequences for Plaid Cymru. Talk of a realignment of the left in Wales may be premature but it is not way off the mark. A failure to deliver a referendum would, however, severely damage the prospect. Which is maybe why Labour MPs are so hostile?