Reshuffle: Wales and Northern Ireland: Reaction to David Jones and Theresa Villiers

Welsh secretary David Jones and Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers settled into their new cabinet seats today, advice aplenty ringing in their ears.

 

As the new Welsh Secretary, David Jones, and the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, settle into their new cabinet seats today, they will do so with a chorus of advice about what should be at the top of their in-tray.


Left Foot Forward examines those calls.

Wales

With all the hype having been around the Basingstoke MP, Maria Miller, taking Cheryl Gillan’s job, it came as somewhat of a surprise to many that David Cameron appointed an actual Welshmen to lead the Wales Office.

Whilst many have never heard of David Jones, the erstwhile MP for Clwyd West (who has been Gillan’s deputy since 2010), will go down in history. As the BBC’s political editor in Wales, Betsan Powys, has noted, he is the first “Jones” to take the office of Welsh secretary.

Describing his “sharp mind and… sharp tongue”, she wrote:

David Jones is a man with a sharp mind and a sharp tongue to go with it. That may be why one future colleague in Cardiff Bay rued the idea of a Secretary of State who “shows contempt for the Assembly”. The same voice has him down as “utterly, utterly, utterly arrogant”.

Others suggest he’ll turn out to surprise those who paint him as a block to devolution. He’s not, they say. He may have been loyal to his former boss – he had to be and you’d expect no less – but his take was often more conciliatory, more open to considering change, then was Mrs Gillan’s. Take Andrew RT Davies’s title and the push to upgrade it from leader of the Welsh Conservative Assembly group to Welsh leader. At least David Jones was prepared to listen.

He is not anti-devolution at all, they say, and they believe he’ll prove it.

But what of the challenges he now faces in the job?

For Plaid Cymru, whilst congratulating him on his appointment, leader Leanne Wood questioned whether the changes in personnel would give Wales any more clout across Whitehall.

Putting the need for a fairer funding settlement at the heart of his in-tray, Wood explained:

“The priority of the Secretary of State should be to represent the needs and interests of Wales and not to be Westminster’s envoy in Wales.

“The first test for David Jones will be to ensure that his government tackles the Assembly’s severe under-funding. The loss of hundreds of millions of pounds each year to the block-grant has had a critical knock-on effect to the Assembly’s budget, meaning cuts to spending on measures to help our economy and on our health and education systems.

“Another task will be for him to secure a legislative slot for the findings of the second part of the Silk Commission.

“Wales is being hit hard by the economic crisis and the deep public spending cuts. People can see that the same old measures are not working and are calling out for new, radical solutions. Since the onset of this recession, Plaid Cymru has called for concrete action in the form of a stimulus from the UK government which will create and protect jobs.

“For Wales to get through this deepening economic crisis, capital investment for job creation is needed as a matter of urgency.

The Tory Lib Dem government cannot be allowed to ignore its responsibilities to Wales. They have a duty to take action to enable the Welsh economy to recover with so many economic levers still in their hands. The communities of Wales need investment from both the UK and Welsh governments now if we are to recover from this economic crisis and it is the role of the Secretary of State to ensure that this happens.”

For Welsh Labour, meanwhile, having put the need for growth and jobs at the heart of the challenges facing the new Secretary of State, Shadow Welsh secretary, Owen Smith, called on his opposite number to scrap the UK government’s plans to change Assembly constituencies, arguing:

“I congratulate David Jones on his appointment and I look forward to him showing decisive leadership on the question of the Green Paper. His predecessor stated clearly that the reason for the proposed changes was in order to align Welsh Assembly boundaries with the new ones intended at Westminster. Now the Liberal Democrats have u-turned on that issue, there can be no justification for the Green paper and I expect David Jones to withdraw it as soon as is possible.

“If he doesn’t, in defiance of the will of the National Assembly, including that of his own Tory group there, then suspicions will linger that David Jones is not truly committed to Devolution.

“He was, of course, previously a member of the infamous Cornerstone Group of Tory MPs which described the Assembly and the Scottish Parliament as “disgracefully wasteful talking-shops… supported by a preponderance of English taxpayers’ money” and called for an “all-UK referendum on the issue of abolishing the existing devolution settlement” and his antipathy to the National Assembly shines through at Westminster.”

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the now former Transport minister, Theresa Villiers, will be having to adjust to life with round-the-clock protection, and there can be no more of a baptism of fire than the series of violent disturbances on the streets of Belfast over the last few nights.

Commenting on her appointment, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Devonport, raised questions about what will happen with proposals to devolve corporation tax to Stormont and a need for improved Westminster/Stormont relations, noting on his blog:

“With Mr Paterson now moving on to tackle issues like the European Common Fisheries policy at the department looking after the Environment and Rural Affairs, the campaign for devolving Corporation Tax loses its most vocal champion. Will Theresa Villiers have the will or the inclination to fight what looks like a losing battle with the Treasury?

“The new secretary of state performed confidently when she recently gave evidence to the Northern Ireland affairs committee on aviation policy.

“She will no doubt seek to build relationships with local politicians across the board. Given the annoyance both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have expressed about being frozen out by Downing Street and the sharp words the Stormont leaders have directed towards Mr Paterson, there’s clearly room for improvement.

“However, the prime minister’s arm’s length attitude to managing Northern Ireland isn’t likely to change, and Ms Villiers will soon discover that when it comes to juggling issues like parades or dealing with the past, it’s hard to keep all sides happy and easy to tread on someone’s toe.”

While for Sinn Fein, party president Gerry Adams listed a number of sizeable issues that need addressing by the new Secretary of State, namely:

“Outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday, St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements which need to be progressed, including a Bill of Rights for the north, as well as other important matters like Corporation Tax and cross border economic development.”

However, his counterpart in the SDLP, Alasdair McDonnell, was somewhat shorter in his response, singling out the need for the corporation tax issue to be settled as a matter of priority.

For the Ulster Unionists, meanwhile, leader Mike Nesbitt, while welcoming the appointment, called on Villiers to prepare for a new Northern Ireland Act to reform the way Stormont operates, including the potential for a formal opposition and for clarity in her stance on corporation tax.

And for the DUP, Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson, simply called for a swift meeting with the new Secretary of State to discuss “a wide range of outstanding issues which require her urgent attention”.

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