Cameron Comes Clean

When David Cameron made his "Broughton Declaration" in November a good number of people thought that he had committed the Tory party to backing a request for a referendum on primary lawmaking powers. Since then I have constantly reminded people that he only said he would not stand in the way, and that he specifically said that there would be a free vote on the issue. My aim was that one of two things would happen: either that it would galvanize the Labour Party into getting the Referendum Order through while they were still in control of the process, or that the Tories would come up with a more definite commitment.

Sad to say, the first doesn't seem to have worked. The Wales Office appears to be committed to sitting on their hands and doing nothing about it. But David Cameron has rather pleasantly surprised me. This is what he said yesterday in an interview on WalesOnline:

The party has previously said it will not "stand in the way" of a referendum, but in a wide-ranging interview as the party begins its Welsh conference in Llandudno, the Tory leader went much further.

"We have said very clearly that if people in Wales want a referendum on law-making powers, we will allow that to happen," he said. "Not just 'we won't stand in the way', if we're the Government we will make that happen if people ask for it."

Despite the rather silly pretence that this is what he said all along, there is a huge difference between allowing Tory MPs a free vote on the issue and him now saying that a Tory Government "will make it happen". It is a very welcome development, although it does seem rather odd for him to have added "if people ask for it". There is the little matter of the National Assembly already having asked for it ... unanimously. So perhaps we should just put this down to him not being quite up to speed on what happened only a few weeks ago.

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This statement is game changing, because it contains the vital element of commitment that was lacking in what he said before. It's game changing because it takes away the last hopes that Peter Hain and the Welsh Office have of delaying the referendum. It's now definitely going to happen one way or the other.

So it will be interesting to see what effect Cameron's new statement has on Peter Hain. The Secretary of State has two important decisions to make: the date of the referendum and the exact wording of the question. The choice is either to leave it for a new Conservative SoSW to decide, or to take the initiative and make the decision himself. Will Peter Hain trust the Tories to do it for him?

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On the subject of the date, Cameron was less certain:

"The only complication at the moment is that we don’t know exactly when the election is going to be, we don’t know how far [Welsh Secretary] Peter Hain will have gone with the consultation, so it is difficult to answer that," he said.

"But people should be in no doubt that if the Welsh people through their Assembly want a referendum we will grant it, we will name the date and it will happen.

"I can’t give any more detail today because I don’t know whether Peter Hain will, for instance, try to make a decision before the election. I think it’s unlikely, because decisions have to go through the Lords and the Commons and all the rest of it."

But this uncertainty is justified. If Hain can't bring himself to lay the Referendum Order in time for it to be passed before the election, the new Tory SoSW will have to do it either for the first time, or again. If s/he has different ideas about what the question should be (and it should be noted that although the Electoral Commission must be consulted about the wording, the final decision remains with the SoSW) it may well not be possible to hold the referendum in October 2010.

There is also a chance that Peter Hain will use uncertainty about the outcome of the Westminster election as another excuse for not making a decision while he still can. Yes, it is possible that a hung parliament may result in another election at about the same time ... and of course nobody would want that. However the date of the referendum can [Schedule 6, 4] be changed if the new SoSW and Welsh Ministers agree (and if neither the Commons or Lords object). So there is nothing to stop Peter Hain setting a date of 21 or 28 October in the Referendum Order, for it to be approved, but for the date to be changed later if an October general election proves necessary. The next ideal date would be March 2011. It need not necessarily be at the beginning of March because the date of the Assembly elections can [Part 1, 4] be put back by up to a month to allow a decent interval between the two votes.

In short Peter Hain has no excuses left. How embarrassing would it be for him to sit out his last few weeks as SoSW doing nothing, and for the Tories to deliver the referendum instead? And what would that do for his party's credibility in the upcoming election?

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2 comments:

DaiTwp said...

The thing that stuck for me was the comment you picked up on i.e. "if people ask for it"

What is that actually supposed mean? Its complete nonsence! Is he proposing a referendum on holding the referedum? Of course he isn't, so what does it mean - nothing thats just it. Politition speak.

He acknowledges that if the Welsh Goverment asks for it, he will make sure it happens (despite re-iterating that he thinks theres far more important things to worry about). Well they have, so its simple - just say yes I will make sure the referendum happens, done. Theres nothing more to add.

Rant over, been listening to too many polititians on the news I think!

James D said...

I think that "if people ask for it" is an ongoing commitment in case Labour go for the version of suicide that involves:
1) a June 3rd election (namely the last possible Thursday);
2) Peter Hain fails to get the SI through Parliament before the election; and:
3) he hasn't even made a meaningful attempt at consulting before the election.

That would leave a very tight interval before the date where the new Welsh Secretary would have to write back to the First Minister saying "sorry, no, because", which I understand to be Friday June 18th. It might be possible to get the draft SI out on that date with some effort, but the likelihood would be that those circumstances would lead to the Assembly having to send the request again.

Of course, it's all Peter Hain's fault for phrasing it as 120 days absolute rather than 85 days on which Parliament is sitting. The sooner we can be rid of his horrendous, incomprehensible, principle-light Government of Wales Act and replace it with a document that sets out the principles upon which our government is based the better.

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