The Saturday Profile: Rhodri Morgan, MP for Cardiff West: The clown prince of Wales

Life Story

Origins: Born 29 September 1939, in Cardiff.

Education: St John's College, Oxford (BA philosophy, politics, economics) and Harvard University (master's degree in Government).

Political Career: Elected Labour MP for Cardiff West in 1987. Made Opposition spokesman on energy in 1988 and was front-bench spokesman on Welsh affairs 1992-97. Appointed chairman of Select Committee on Public Administration 1997.

Family: Married Julie Morgan, MP for Cardiff North, in 1967. Three children: two daughters, Mari born 1968 and Siani, 1969. One adopted son, Stuart.

Supporters say: "He's the people's choice."

Critics say: "He is very amusing, very knowledgeable, but he suffers from verbal incontinence."

Hobbies: Wood carving, long-distance running.

THE PROBLEM with Rhodri Morgan is that he has failed the Hyacinth Bucket test in BBC's Keeping Up Appearances. Impeccably middle-class he might be but, unforgivably, he is an intellectual, he is often informally dressed and he is clearly not English - unsurprising, in view of the fact that he is standing for election next Saturday as leader of the Labour Party in Wales, and hence First Secretary in the Welsh Assembly.

The final nail in his political coffin, as far as Hyacinth is concerned, however, is that his house near Cardiff is an absolute tip. It looks as if its contents have been arranged by a small explosive device.

Most days chez Morgan there is a liberal sprinkling of books, papers and boxes - sometimes there are even half-eaten comestibles. His wife Julie, a feminist and MP for Cardiff North, certainly does not believe it is her function to resort to the feather duster any more than Morgan does.

New Labour does not approve of this. They might venture - in fact, they do - that Morgan's chaotic approach to matters domestic is a symptom of his harum scarum politics.

Alun Michael, who Tony Blair and his apparatchiks have decided to support, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Neat house, neat clothes, neat mind. As one Labour activist in Abercynnon, south-east Wales says: "If you put a pound in Alun's slot, you'll get a quid's worth out. If you put a pound in Rhodri's slot, you might hit the jackpot or you might get bugger all back."

New Labour has a problem in its attempt to suppress the unsound Morgan. Every time members of the Party and unions in Wales are asked who they want to lead Labour in the principality, Morgan turns out to be the man by a significant margin. The only votes being secured by Michael are coming from union activists in proverbial smoke-filled rooms, and from MPs who are operating under the New Labour whip. It is a profound embarrassment to the Blair camp, and it may prove to be a fatal weakness in the longer term, even if Michael manages to be elected.

Despite his origins in north Wales, Michael is unable to shake off the image as someone who has alighted from a silken parachute with Millbank printed on it. Morgan, in comparison, is seen as the homegrown candidate with the necessary touch of south Walesian extroversion.

The Prime Minister has been to Wales three times recently to show his support for Michael, but it is becoming counter-productive. Unlike the Mrs Buckets of this world, the Welsh feel they do not need to be wooed, cajoled and told how to vote. Many of them quite simply resent it.

Resentment was not a foreign emotion to Morgan's ancestors, who were a restless and rather colourful clan. Indeed, at one stage, they combined radical political action with cross-dressing. One of them, Morgan Morgan of Pontardulais, was one of the leaders of the Rebecca riots of 1840 in which agricultural workers disguised themselves as women and smashed up toll gates erected by private companies and landowners. Rhodri went to the trouble of taking his extended family on a visit to the area, where he explained their turbulent provenance.

Rhodri's father was largely unaffected by the insurrectional gene. He was a teacher of Welsh at the University of Wales at Cardiff, and later he switched to the Swansea campus where he became vice-Principal. His mother, who is now in her nineties, was among the first women to attend Swansea University.

Mari, the elder of Morgan's two daughters, is a research scientist, and her sister, Siani, works for Shelter, the housing charity. The family tends to close ranks around Morgan's adopted son Stuart, who was charged with living off immoral earnings in 1988, burglary a year later, and then supplying cannabis. He is now studying at the University of Glamorgan.

A fluent Welsh speaker, Rhodri grew up in Radyr on the outskirts of the principality's capital, where his family imbued him with a taste for learning. He is by no means the typical south Wales boyo of English legend - not one of the valley boys whose fathers worked down the pit, but who struggled to send their children to university. Morgan is part of Wales's meritocratic aristocracy - or crachach to use the slightly pejorative Welsh word.

Nevertheless, he went to the local primary school - the Welsh upper-middle class has never taken to fee-paying schools to the same extent as the English. Performing wonders in the 11-plus examination, he secured a place at Whitchurch grammar school, where he cheerfully boasts to having been top, or near top, in most subjects except science.

Rhodri's introduction to politics was somewhat gentler than that experienced by the hosts of Rebecca, but none the less cathartic. At the age of 11 he insisted that his mother take him to a political meeting near their home. There he witnessed a local female Labour supporter being reduced to tears by a crowd of public school Tory thugs. "I remember thinking, `I'm going to nail those bastards'," he says.

He waited some time before avenging the poor woman. He was very much a late-starter as far as full-time politics were concerned. He went up to Oxford and thence to Harvard University, where he took a master's degree in government. In common with Neil Kinnock, he spent some time as a Workers' Education Association lecturer in south-east Wales, sharing a flat with that other great Welsh political extrovert who failed to win the approval of the English.

Morgan worked as an industrial development officer for south Glamorgan county council for six years from 1974, and he was then the European community's representative in Wales from 1980 to 1987, when he was elected MP for Cardiff West. It has not gone unnoticed that he has chosen to live just outside the constituency. Although his political patch is "mixed", it contains some of the toughest council estates in Wales, suffering from all the usual problems of the inner city. In fact, Morgan lives in Michaelstone Le Pit, Wales's answer to Islington.

He has a deserved reputation for wit, although self-deprecation is not usually an ingredient. The appointment of Thatcherite John Redwood as Secretary of State for Wales seemed to be a legitimate target for satire. The decision by the Conservative Government was actually seen by Morgan - and the few Welsh people who cared to give it a minute's thought - as a practical joke.

On hearing the announcement, Morgan immediately challenged the Welsh Secretary to pronounce the longest place name in Britain: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Redwood was given three days to master the word, but preferred to ignore the challenge. Redwood caused Morgan to shake with uncontrollable laughter when he attempted to sing the Welsh national anthem, and instead performed a serviceable imitation of a river trout.

Morgan's reputation for humour - sometimes perceived as flippancy - was underlined when he was asked last year whether he would be standing in the election to become leader of the Labour Party in Wales: "Do one-legged ducks swim in a circle?" he replied.

The bonhomie is currently masking deep disappointment - some would say bitterness - over the fact that Tony Blair failed to give him a ministerial post after Labour won the general election. Morgan was part of the team shadowing Tory Welsh Office ministers and should have passed seamlessly into government. He was given the chairmanship of the Commons Committee on Public Administration as a consolation prize. Morgan's life hitherto had been effortless, according to his detractors, unmarred by any significant public failure.

Even Morgan's enemies in Wales say Blair was wrong. "If ever there was a case of when it was better to have someone in the tent pissing out, this was it," said one of his critics. The detractor went on to damn him with faint praise by suggesting that a junior ministerial post would be quite taxing enough for his political skills.

His chairmanship of the Commons committee has not enhanced his reputation at Westminster. He is regarded as "woolly and diffuse", and guilty of "verbal incontinence". Fellow Welshman Kinnock will testify to the potentially damaging nature of such criticisms. Observers believed that his chairmanship of the committee allowed Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, to emerge largely unscathed from a hearing into the legitimacy of his private briefings to journalists. Old Westminster hands, most of whom do like him, accuse him of being chaotic. He is often late for appointments, turning up with at least two bags, one of which will be full of papers and the other overflowing with sports gear. Morgan combines a liking for woodcarving with a regime of ruthless jogging.

A spell as deputy to Tony Blair as an opposition energy spokesman finally cast him into outer darkness from New Labour's point of view. The two men simply could not get on.

While there is a significant difference between Morgan and Michael in terms of personality, there is not an ha'porth of difference between their political philosophies. Both are right-wingers in Labour's terms, although Morgan has never really been a cheerleader for the New Labour project. "If I use the phrase `new Labour' it is with a small `n'," he says.

His main political interests lie in regional development, health, the environment and European affairs. But the one policy that causes a flutter in the New Labour dove-cotes is his preoccupation with freedom of information. The "control freaks" at London Labour Party headquarters find it most worrying. Predictably, it was a policy much-trumpeted by Labour in opposition, but rarely referred to these days. Morgan intends to pursue a relentless policy of glasnost as soon as he is in a position to do so.

Morgan is also a quango-phobe who has hounded those in semi-official positions who have feasted themselves on public money. "There are more quangos in Cardiff than gondolas in Venice," he has remarked, and he is determined to set about a cull. It is an attitude that has not endeared him to the great and the good in Wales, but strikes a chord with the electorate.

The election is difficult to predict, but come what may, Morgan will not go away. There is even a contingency plan afoot to form a coalition of Morganites and Plaid Cymru representatives at the Assembly who would vote Michael out and The Unsound One in. Morgan will follow the injunction of Dylan Thomas and refuse to "go gentle into that good night".

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