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Friday, November 27, 1998 Published at 21:32 GMT

UK Politics

Blair backs Michael for Welsh leadership

Tony Blair has expressed his support for Alun Michael

The prime minister has publicly backed Welsh Secretary Alun Michael to succeed Ron Davies as Labour's candidate to lead the Welsh Assembly.

The BBC's Glynn Mathias: Such open support from London could prove counter-productive
Tony Blair visited Wales in an attempt to heal divisions within the Wales Labour Party following speculation as to who will be selected to lead Labour in the assembly.

It is his first visit since the resignation of former Welsh secretary Ron Davies from the cabinet and as Labour's candidate to become the first secretary of the new body.

[ image: Alun Michael:
Alun Michael: "As Welsh as it is possible to be"
Tony Blair met Mr Michael before visiting a community scheme in Abercynon, Mid-Glamorgan.

He then went on to a question-and-answer session with party members and students at the University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd.

Earlier at a private lunch, Mr Blair met left-wing backbencher Rhodri Morgan, who is contesting the leadership against Mr Michael, and other assembly candidates.

Blair - 'I think he's a great guy'

Mr Blair said: "I make no apology for being a strong supporter of Alun Michael.

"I think he is a great guy, that is why I brought him to the job of secretary of state for Wales.

"He is one of the most capable people in politics that I know."

The prime minister dismissed suggestions Mr Michael's contest with Mr Morgan was a "London v Wales" battle.

He said: "The Wales Labour Party will make up its mind on the election. I don't have a vote in it."

The prime minister praised Mr Michael as being as "Welsh as it's possible to be".

Mr Blair said: "The fact that he is a government minister and the fact that he is responsible in the UK as well as Wales should be a point in his favour, not one against him."

Popular among grassroots members

Earlier, Mr Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Mr Blair wanted to make it clear that devolution is a part of central government's agenda.

"It's not a question of Wales floating away from the UK, it's a question of Wales and Welsh people being trusted to run things in an assembly with the support of government," Mr Michael said.

In Wales, Mr Michael refused to comment that the prime minister's visit was a boost to his campaign.

The Welsh Secretary is seen as Downing Street's favourite for the job, although Mr Morgan, runner-up to Ron Davies earlier this year for the position, is popular among grassroots members.

Mr Morgan told BBC News: "I think people think I'm the right person for the job.

"It's a horses for courses issue, it isn't a matter of ministerial experience."

At the question-and-answer session Mr Michael sat near Mr Blair while Mr Morgan sat in the audience.

Party member Nancy Nicholas asked why the leadership contest in February was going to be decided by an electoral college and not by "one member, one vote".

Mr Blair replied he and John Prescott were elected to the national Labour leadership by an electoral college made up of constituencies, trade unions and other organisations.

Mr Blair's visit comes as a BBC poll shows the Ron Davies affair has failed to dent Labour's support in the region.

[ image: Support for the assembly is growing slowly]
Support for the assembly is growing slowly
The party has the backing of nearly two-thirds of the electorate in Wales - 62% - according to the BBC Wales opinion poll. It puts the Conservatives on 15%, Plaid Cymru on 14% and the Liberal Democrats on 8%.

The idea of an assembly for Wales has slowly gained some measure of approval. Just over half those questioned - 52% - now favour the idea, compared with 45% in March 1996 and 49% four months ago. Those against and the "don't knows" were equally divided.

But scepticism about the role of the new body remains. Some 42% believed it would not affect their lives very much and 12% believed it would not affect them at all. One in five said it would affect them quite a lot.

Nearly half - 44% - favoured a coalition regime over one-party control of the assembly.

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