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Friday, October 30, 1998 Published at 18:16 GMT


UK Politics: Talking Politics

Labour's tough task in Wales



BBC News Chief Political Correspondent Huw Edwards looks back at the week in Westminster.

It is difficult to imagine the full horror that these past days have inflicted on Ron Davies and his family. Whatever your views on the wisdom of going off with a stranger on London's Clapham Common, most people I've spoken to (political friends and foes) feel immense sympathy for him.

His career is in ruins. His family must be deeply hurt. His friends feel a sense of horror and shock. And we still don't know the full story!

Mysterious incident on Clapham Common

What seems clear is that the untold story is even more embarrassing than the story we already know. And it's bad enough as it is.

Mr Davies has already acknowledged a serious lapse of judgement, though the precise nature of the lapse is a mystery.

There is no shortage of unattractive theories. They have been rehearsed in the tabloid press and no doubt the Sunday papers (downmarket end) are frantically preparing their own colourful versions of what exactly happened on Monday night.

Ron Davies decided fairly quickly that he'd have to give up his cabinet job. He did this, I am told, without even consulting his special adviser, Huw Roberts, whose advice he has sought almost every day since he entered the Welsh Office in May 1997.

The hand of Campbell

The Welsh Secretary's rapid exit was engineered by Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's press secretary.

It was particularly telling that when pictures of Mr Davies appeared on the news on Tuesday night, the unmistakeable figure of Mr Campbell could be glimpsed momentarily in the background as Mr Davies was ushered towards a camera and microphone.

But their strategy hasn't been entirely successful. They tried to distance Mr Blair from Mr Davies (for obvious reasons) but they failed to get him to give up all of his posts at once.

The leadership of Welsh Labour (and the prospective leadership of the new Welsh Assembly) were still in Mr Davies' grip. He wasn't intending to let go.

This was a huge irritation to Downing Street, and by Thursday night Mr Blair had got his way. Mr Davies would give up everything except his backbench status.

No chance of staying

Having said that, Mr Davies was very unwise to think he could hold on.

His image problem was horrendous. Welsh Labour MPs were very reluctant to state publicly that he should carry on.

The Welsh Labour Party in Cardiff was also lukewarm. And the signals from Downing Street were painfully clear.

His only public supporters were also personal friends, most of them intimately linked with the successful Yes For Wales devolution campaign.

Mr Davies no doubt took comfort in hundreds of sincere expressions of support from people in his own Caerphilly constituency, but this was never going to be enough.

He would be dogged for years to come with an image problem made in hell, and nothing was going to change this. Politics is politics, even in the "inclusive" New Wales which Mr Davies was so successful at promoting.

Now who?

All of which leaves Mr Blair with a big problem. Who takes Ron Davies' place at Labour's helm in Wales? Step forward Alun Michael, the new secretary of state.

It might seem an obvious choice. But it's not. Mr Michael apparently does not want to be a member of the Welsh Assembly. He wants to be a Whitehall-based cabinet minister.

But Mr Blair is leaning on him. And the fact that he is doing so reflects Mr Blair's poor view of Labour's candidates for the Welsh Assembly.

Not one of them is considered worthy of leading the new assembly. Rhodri Morgan, the MP defeated by Ron Davies for the Welsh leadership, is detested by Downing Street. They see him as a man of questionable judgement.

He will be one of many who will be less than delighted with the news that Alun Michael is to be "encouraged" to stand.

It won't be that straightforward, either. The candidates' list will have to be re-opened, and a leadership election re-run (assuming there will be a contest).

Mr Michael's widely-perceived lack of enthusiasm will not help matters.

Mr Blair knows this, and he has no power to enforce Alun Michael's succession. This is down to Labour's members in Wales.

And as one Labour MP put it to me."a more awkward bunch it would be difficult to meet". Good luck Alun!



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