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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 19:06 GMT
Wales@Westminster
David Cornock
The Cariad wine was flowing in Whitehall but this was a St David's Day celebration with a difference.

Mine host at Gwydyr House - London home to the Wales Office - was Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Wales.

Like most of his colleagues, he was good cheer after listening to Gordon Brown's Budget.

Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy
What does the future hold for Paul Murphy

But was this Mr Murphy's "leaving do"?

Whitehall is abuzz with speculation about reports being drawn up that will see Mr Murphy's job merged with that of his Scottish counterpart, Helen Liddell.

The Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson is said to have drawn up a report on the future shape of Whitehall after the general election.

One option is said to include the Scotland/Wales merger, on the grounds that neither secretary of state has as much to do after devolution.

A new role would be created, secretary of state for the union - a job earmarked for, according to whichever newspaper you read, John Prescott, Robin Cook or John Reid.

Kissinger-like

Removing the personalities from the equation, the proposal certainly exists in Whitehall.

The prime minister himself described the assembly first minister's role as "the successor job" to the Welsh secretary.

So that's sorted then. Well maybe not.

Paul Murphy has been rather busier than he expected during his time at the Wales Office.

His chief responsibility is to negotiate the assembly's budget - no easy task during last year's negotiations over European grants. But that is only part of the job.

Scottish Secretary Helen Liddell
Is Murphy a role model for Helen Liddell?

At various times, Mr Murphy has found himself in a Kissinger-like peacekeeping role as the devolution settlement has endured its teething problems.

Indeed, the prime minister is said to believe that his work in helping to bring stability to Welsh politics is a role model for the new Scottish Secretary Helen Liddell.

His success may even have counted against him when the prime minister chose John Reid, and not Mr Murphy, to succeed Peter Mandelson in Northern Ireland.

Potential conflicts

He played a key role in the ultimately doomed attempts to save Alun Michael's skin as first secretary, and has occasionally had to soothe ruffled feathers as various Whitehall departments fell out with the assembly at official and ministerial level.

On top of that, he managed to negotiate a legislative slot for Wales in the last Queen's Speech before the general election - no mean feat.

Could this have been delivered by a Scot or an English MP supposed to represent both countries equally around the cabinet table?

Although the Scots are more often than not allies of the Welsh, when it comes to some issues - like the way the assembly is funded - there is plenty of potential for conflicts of interest to arise.

That, at least, has been recognised by the Conservatives in their proposal for part-time secretaries of state.

Conservative leader William Hague
William Hague would redefine Murphy's role

They want to merge the posts with other cabinet responsibilities - although it is difficult to see how someone could be both leader of the House of Commons and Welsh secretary.

And the Conservatives idea of a Welsh voice around the cabinet table is not what immediately springs to mind - John Redwood, William Hague, etc.

It is slightly curious to see the Conservatives campaigning on this issue, given William Hague's refusal to appoint a shadow Welsh secretary.

The Tories' Welsh affairs spokesman had to make do with that career sop - a job with brackets. Hence Nigel Evans's role as Vice-Chairman (Wales).

So who knows where Welsh interests will be represented in Whitehall if William Hague wins the election.

The Labour answer is equally uncertain.

Paul Murphy insisted in the Commons that there are "no plans" to change the role - just as Michael Heseltine once had "no plans" to challenge Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Murphy insisted that the secretary of state's role was an integral part of the devolution settlement - which is certainly one argument for its preservation.

Paul Murphy is said to believe that his job will survive the election.

This year's St David's Day drinks may not have been a wake after all.

david.cornock@bbc.co.uk

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See also:

05 Mar 01 | Wales
Hague would redefine Welsh post
28 Jul 99 | UK Politics
Paul Murphy: A Welsh homecoming
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