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Now that the Welsh election and the powers referendum are behind us, thoughts are turning to what change is next for Wales.

Top of the list (for some) will be the much-anticipated ‘Calman-style process.’

Much-anticipated, that is, by  UK Government ministers ,  Conservatives and Liberal Democrat AMs but not much-anticipated by those in Labour and Plaid.

The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems states,

Depending on the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, we will establish a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly.

It’s one of three specific promises to do with Welsh devolution in the coalition agreement, the other two being to introduce a referendum and to take forward the controversial bid for housing powers.

Back in March I said that there wasn’t much detail about what it would entail and there still isn’t. But here’s what I know:

1. It’s being driven by the UK Government.

A source close to the Welsh government told me: ‘We never asked for it, we were never consulted on it, we’ve never seen any detail about it.’

I understand though that it’ll be one of the first items on the agenda when the Secretary of State meets the First Minister shortly.

The Welsh Secretary is also due to meet the Treasury in coming weeks.

2. It will focus on ‘financial accountability’ and not funding reform.

A Labour source said ‘The important thing for us is fair funding for Wales. That’s the first stepping stone.’ Plaid figures have said much the same thing in the past.

But the wording in the UK coalition agreement is

We recognise the concerns expressed by the Holtham Commission on the system of devolution funding. However, at this time, the priority must be to reduce the deficit and therefore any change to the system must await the stabilisation of the public finances.

And nothing has changed since. Although not ruling it out, government sources are pouring cold water on the idea that reform of the Barnett formula will be included in this review.

‘There are things that can be done around Barnett,’ is what I’ve been told.

3. ‘Financial accountability’ hasn’t been defined yet.

The Calman commission is being used by the UK Government to change the way Scotland is funded, reducing its block grant and giving the Scottish government more responsibility for the tax raised in Scotland to plug the gap.

It’s not yet clear what it could mean for Wales. Gerry Holtham, who’s led an in-depth Commission into Welsh public finances has some interesting thoughts here as does Plaid’s economic adviser Eurfyl ap Gwilym.

4. It’s unlikely to consider any other devolution of powers.

The Government has said that any further transfer of power, such as criminal justice or the Crown Estates, is not a good idea so soon after a referendum which has introduced direct lawmaking power to Cardiff Bay.

5. It may not be a Commission.

Before the election, Carwyn Jones said that he felt a full Commission wasn’t needed because of the amount of work already done in this area by Gerry Holtham.

Although a decision on what form this process takes hasn’t yet been made, I gather the Wales Office feels similarly and recognises that a lot of evidence has already been gathered.

It’s also not been decided yet how long it will take.

6. No-one’s been chosen to lead it yet.

I gather possible names have been discussed informally but no more than that. Sources within Whitehall say it should be someone who understands devolution, finance and who understands Wales.

Anyone have Gerry Holtham’s number?

7. There will be a row over it.

It’s interesting that the original Calman commission was imposed on the SNP Scottish Government by Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Political dividing lines on the Welsh Calman have already been drawn. Labour and Plaid (even if they’re not in government together) will portray it as an imposition particularly without  The Conservatives and the Lib Dems will see it as an opportunity for further devolution.

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Over at Wales Home, Daran Hill has a typically thoughtful look at the Welsh election and in particular the prospects of Labour winning a majority. Well worth a read in its entirety of course, but one thing that stands out is what Daran calls ‘the cheeky win’ – the surprise victories/defeats/holds (delete as applicable) which change the whole election game.

What could be the big surprises this time around? A Green or UKIP win? The Liberal Democrats defying the polls and not just holding onto what they have now but winning Ceredigion and Newport East? A Labour landslide? The Conservatives winning Ynys Môn thanks to Peter Rogers’ endorsement? Plaid Cymru coming from third place to take Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire?

Of course one party’s improbable fantasy is another’s racing certainty, but the unpredictable element is what makes elections so enjoyable to report on and so fraught for the parties involved.

So what are your predictions for the big surprise or surprises in 2011? Leave them in the comments and I’ll round up the best of them.

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Plaid Cymru’s former chair, John Dixon, has left the party after four decades as a leading activist.

It’s no secret that Mr Dixon has had his concerns about Plaid’s direction for some time.

He quit as chair  last July, citing ‘a number of reasons for this decision, mostly political, and some personal.’

Even so, his was a notable absence at Plaid’s conference over the weekend and the ‘about me’ section of his blog now describes him as ‘a former Plaid Cymru member, activist, candidate, and national officer.’

Clues to what’s led him to break with the party after nearly 40 years can be found in his latest blogposting which bemoans the increasing homogenisation of Welsh politics and in particular Plaid politics:

I expect a lot of similarity between Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem parties; that’s become normal; but with Plaid joining the consensus as a post-nationalist party – what is the distinguishing feature?  Shorn of Obama-esque rhetoric about hope and change, the leader’s speech to Plaid’s Spring Conference as reported in the media seemed to be based primarily on the simple assertion that Plaid would manage things better.

It’s an outspoken post and I’d recommend you to read it in full and keep your eye on his blog, which has always been a thoughtful and free-thinking platform for views which haven’t always been welcome to party chiefs.

John Dixon is on record as saying he  has no interest in undermining Plaid.

But he’s asking its leadership some difficult questions about what the party’s purpose is. And those questions won’t go away.

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When he stands up to deliver his budget tomorrow (Wednesday), the Chancellor George Osborne will do so in very bleak circumstances.

The military is engaged in a new conflict which will have to be paid for whilst at home, the latest figures show inflation is rising and borrowing higher than anticipated.

All of which gives Mr Osborne very little room for manouevre, let alone to deliver what David Cameron predicted last week would be ‘the most pro-growth budget in a generation.

Almost certainly it will disappoint Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. Both parties have made their wishlists known.

Labour says it wants Mr Osborne to reverse the planned VAT increase on fuel and it may get some joy here. It’s expected the Chancellor will ‘do something’ to ease rising fuel prices which could inlcude postponing the VAT increase.

Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have both called on the Chancellor to reform the way Wales is funded. Fat chance of that happening.

Plaid also wants the Treasury to overturn an earlier decision to prevent the Assembly Government spending unused money at the end of the financial year. Again: fat chance.

Most likely Wales can expect to see no specific spending but rather the knock on effect of increased spending in England on apprenticeships, colleges and schools.

There’s been plenty of speculation  over the last few days, some of which seems better-informed than others. Let me add to it.

A possible merger of national insurance and income tax. There have been a lot of hints about this and there have been many calls for it to happen over the years. It’s thought to be extremely complicated to do and throws up a number of questions such as what happens to pensioners who pay no National Insurance? And what about employer’s contributions? What’s most likely is that Mr Osborne will signal the beginning of the process.

Income tax threshold. Last year the level at which you start paying tax was raised from £6,475 to £7,475. It’s likely to be raised at least to £8,000 in line with the coalition government’s aim of raising it to £10,000. But it’s also likely that the level at which people pay higher rate (40%) tax will be brought DOWN to pay for it.

Corporation tax. There’s some speculation tonight that Mr Osborne has a surprise tax cut planned and that it could be corporation tax which he cuts.

Pensions. At the moment, those whose state pension is below the minimum income guarantee (about £140) are eligible for benefits which bring it up to that level.  Bringing the basic level of pension up to that level would be a way of generating good headlines and stopping those pensioners from feeling like benfits claimants.

Fuel. As I mentioned, there have been very strong hints that the Chancellor will ease the burden on motorists by postponing or reducing the fuel duty increase planned for next month. Watch too for a possible answer to a request from the Wales Office that rural parts of Wales are included in a pilot scheme

Cigarettes and alcohol. You can expect a 17p increase on a packet of 20 cigarettes. Look for 3p per pint on strong lagers but a possible cut in duty on low-strength beer.

Troops. A possible £250 pay rise for 50,000 troops earning less than £21,000.

Online CD selling. A loophold which allows VAT-free CDs, DVDs etc to be imported from the Channel Islands is expected to be closed. That could mean up to £2 extra on such online CDs.

We’ll know soon enough. Remember, if these predictions come true, you read them here. If they don’t: nothing to do with me guv.

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Assembly negotiation room

Politics is all about behind-the-scenes negotiations but when I arrived at the Assembly this morning, I wondered if I’d stumbled across the secret room where these negotiations take place?

Perhaps the parties are already holding talks about possible coalition formations after the May 5th Assembly election?

Perhaps it’s a new room designed to be somewhere that those who disagree with each other within parties can go to make up?

It’s none of the above.

In fact it’s part of an event being held by the Council for Education and World Citizenship which is using the Assembly’s education facilities to teach students what it’s like at a UN conference.

Perhaps the concept is one that could be borrowed though. Assembly members may need a negotiation room in the coming weeks and months.

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There was much talk at the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference and the Conservative Spring Forum at the weekend about the ‘Calman-style process’ that the UK coalition government promised would follow a Yes vote in the powers referendum.

Now that there’s been a Yes vote, leading Westminster politicians including Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Cheryl Gillan, lined up to say that promise would be kept.

There’s very little by way of detail, but I’ll tell you what I can.

The Calman commission was set up by MSPs to look at ways of ‘improving’ the Scottish parliament’s ‘financial accountability.’ It was seen by many as a way of wrong-footing the Scottish National Party government which didn’t support the commission.

It’s not clear whether or not what will happen for Wales will be a commission or some other form of review.

The First Minister Carwyn Jones told AMs he hoped it wouldn’t be a commission because he believed the Holtham commission on funding and finance for Wales, which published reports in 2009 and 2010, has already done most of the legwork on funding.

He said he’d ‘urge the UK Government to look at Holtham as THE commission.’

The Wales Office won’t commit itself one way or another, apart from noting that a lot of evidence has already been gathered and it doesn’t want to duplicate that evidence.

What about a figurehead like Calman or Holtham to lead whatever form of inquiry or review is carried out? Names have been discussed I’m told but no decision has been made.

What about terms of reference? Too early to say – no decision has been made.

On timing I can be a little more clear. I’m told the Wales Office won’t do anything until after the Assembly election on May 5th.

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When the referendum campaign’s over next Friday, those on both sides will undoubtedly feel like either celebrating or drowning their sorrows.

If you’re a Yes supporter, you may well have received an invitation to watch the results and let your hair down in Bedwas with Caerphilly councillor Ron Davies and Cardiff councillor Neil McAvoy.

I’ve been passed an invitation.

Hi! You are invited to the following event: Thanks for Voting Yes Party ! Daytime: Ron Davies & Results on Huge Screen ! Evening: Meic Stevens & Band Last Concert in Wales ! See the Dawning of a New Wales ! Only 400 Tickets ! Mar 04, 2011 12:00 PM – 11:55 PM

Unlike the Yes For Wales campaign, this is unlikely to be a cross-party party. When I mentioned it to one senior Labour figure, the response was: ‘Who’d want to go to that?’

The No campaigners in True Wales, meanwhile, have an event lined up at Newbridge rugby club which has become an unofficial spiritual home for many within the group.

 

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