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9 April 2001

With friends like these Lib Dems . . .


By Paul Starling

The postponement of the election is bad news for Labour’s leadership in Wales. The sooner it is all over, the sooner they can get back to concentrating on their quirky relationship with the Lib Dems in the National Assembly.

The First Minister Rhodri Morgan, you may remember, turned to the Lib Dems last July to save his political bacon. A year of wrecking tactics by Plaid Cymru had disrupted, undermined and finally destroyed the assembly career of his predecessor, Alun Michael. Morgan was determined not to go the same way, so he smiled lamely at their first joint press conference, when the Lib Dems announced that they had “won 114 policy concessions from Labour”. He even bit his tongue when it emerged that two senior Labour figures would have to be jettisoned to clear seats around the cabinet table for the Lib Dems.

Until now, the two horses he has been riding have been heading generally the same way. But since the general election began to loom, Morgan has been straddling two beasts heading in opposite directions. And he is finding the experience intensely painful. “Why,” Labour’s troops are asking, “are we in partnership with a party hell-bent on doing us damage at the polls?”

The serious discontent started two weeks ago following the Lib Dems’ spring conference in Cardiff.

Peter Black, putting away his Deputy Assembly Minister’s hat, launched a series of attacks against Labour. Labour lacked vision, he claimed, while the Lib Dems – there are six in the assembly – were “investing in housing at levels unheard of since 1992, and tackling homelessness with vigour and passion”.

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While Labour’s “local government barons would not give up a single drop of personal power unless it was wrung from them”, Black said, the Lib Dems were determined “to bring in fair voting for council elections”.

Reducing prescription charges, scrapping eye- and dental-check charges, more funds for school books and equipment, and more free nursery education were all policies the Lib Dems had forced Labour to implement, he claimed.

“Labour have had their chance,” Black told the assembled media. “They’ve blown it. They’ve failed to invest in public services, failed to listen to what people want, above all failed to change where it really matters – in the town hall.”

For Rhodri Morgan, 7 June cannot come quick enough. But who knows what 8 June will bring for the uneasy alliance that he sold to his party as a deal for stability that would prove good for the Labour Party in Wales?

And then, just as you think things can’t get any worse, in walks some joker who upturns the rug you are standing on. For Labour’s fretful 34 MPs, the figure of fun they could have done without is Alison Halford.

You may remember that Halford was the most senior policewoman in Britain. Now she is turning out to be just about the most colourful political character in Wales.

Her inexorable rise to public prominence started when she received substantial damages from a sexual discrimin-ation case against her former employers, Merseyside Police. Her profile continued to grow when, in 1997, she won a phone-tapping case against the Home Secretary and the government, which forced a review of UK laws.

By 1999, she was an assembly member and hit the headlines again when she stopped, full-flight in the middle of a debate, to announce that the young Tory chief whip, David Davies, who was standing in front of her, had “one of the nicest bottoms I have seen”.

Today, she is in hot water again. On two counts. The first is serious. The other may prove politically suicidal.

At the turn of the year, Halford is said to have “attacked” a taxi driver, Martin Blake, outside her North Wales home after he refused to let her dog into his cab. She denies it, but now faces charges of common assault and a public order offence.

The worry of the forthcoming court case, however, has not quelled her appetite for the political fray. She has stirred a quite different storm by suggesting that assembly members work harder than Westminster MPs and should be paid the same, and by questioning whether Wales needs as many MPs as it has.

Faced with a ten-week campaign in which many majorities are seriously under threat, that suggestion from within their own ranks was the last thing Labour’s Welsh MPs needed.