Someone else's crisis

A unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party is having the l

The first morning of Conference has a reassuring air about it. I had arrived the previous night after struggling through flash floods and rush hour traffic. This morning the sun was shining and all seemed right with the world.

Better still, and this is a unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party was having a leadership crisis, not us. What will the media talk about now? Nick Clegg is secure in his office with the support of the party and nobody is taking out nomination papers to oppose him.

This year Liberal Democrat Conference has started a day early in an effort to make it more accessible to those who cannot get time off from their jobs. The first big debate therefore took place on the Saturday afternoon at which representatives discussed a wide range of radical initiatives to give UK Citizens a voice in Parliament.

Proposed measures include a more efficacious system of petitioning MPs and People’s Bills, whereby the six legislative proposals that receive the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons. Proposals to give people the opportunity to veto unpopular Acts of Parliament through a referendum were rejected. Representatives were concerned that allowing people to trigger a plebiscite gathering one million signatures in 60 days would be open to abuse and would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

With Lembit Opik MP and Baroness Ros Scott lobbying behind the scenes for their respective Party Presidential campaigns I spent Saturday dodging canvassers for the respective camps before doing what Liberal Democrats like to do best. OK, it might take second place behind socialising in bars. I spoke at a fringe meeting on electoral reform.

At present the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to change the way that local Councils are elected. I tried to put that right through a private members bill only to see it voted down by Labour AMs. I am not giving up.

And then it was onto the blog awards. I was shortlisted for Best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office, the Tim Garden Award for short. It is the third successive year that I have been shortlisted for this award and was stunned to win it this year.

Although this is a Federal Conference it is also an opportunity to get publicity back home. All of the Welsh media have decamped here so we take every opportunity to get our message across. Sunday morning therefore involves a visit to a homeless hostel in Bournemouth followed by the launch of a new paper on affordable housing in Wales.

A confidential roundtable meeting with the Police Federation follows and then into the main hall to watch the Nick Clegg Question and Answer session. It really is a busy conference and because it is being held a week earlier than usual I am able to stay for the full five days without being called back to Welsh Assembly meetings.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West

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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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