Not only Ron will rue that walk on the common

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The Independent Online
RON DAVIES has finally reached for the pearl-handled revolver and abandoned his forlorn hope of becoming First Minister of Wales.

Attention now focuses on his successor, Alun Michael, who may yet rue the day he was prematurely catapulted into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales.

It is an open secret that Mr Michael was less than enthusiastic about Welsh devolution during last year's referendum. In Wales he kept his head down and concentrated on increasing his national profile as an up and coming Home Office minister. He hopes his new job is but a stepping stone to bigger, more mainstream, political responsibilities.

A serious problem now looms, however, for Mr Michael as he dreads the real possibility that he might yet be asked by the Prime Minister to accept the poisoned chalice of the First Minister's job himself. Such a prospect would almost certainly mean him abandoning his Commons seat and his long- term ambitions. Being a loyal Blairite, however, he is in no position to resist such a request since the alternatives are unattractive to the Government.

The Prime Minister will expect his lieutenants to ensure that there are no circumstances in which Rhodri Morgan, the runner-up in September's election, gets anywhere near the job.

Candidates are thin on the ground and the suggestion of Neil Kinnock returning from Brussels to take the post seems utterly far-fetched. He has firm words on the record expressing outright opposition to a Welsh Assembly. The other possibility of the Welsh MEP, Wayne David, doing the job looks decidedly second best.

Which brings us back to Mr Michael being lent on heavily by Mr Blair to do his duty for Queen and country - or rather, for Labour's Welsh interests. If champagne corks pop this weekend to celebrate his promotion he may yet wish Ron Davies had not taken that walk on Clapham Common.

Supporters of the present first-past-the-post voting system may be in danger of being stitched up by the seductive prospect of successfully kicking Roy Jenkins' report into the long grass, until after the next general election, by delaying the promised referendum.

Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and other opponents of electoral reform are emphasising the Prime Minister's call for a national debate. They stress the need for exhaustive consultation, the fact that legislation is required and a host of other problems and difficulties.

Their tactics look superficially attractive to backbenchers such as Stuart Bell who leads the anti-PR campaign for Labour. But a double game maybe being played by Messrs Jenkins, Ashdown and Blair.

Lord Jenkins himself acknowledges that it will take up to eight years to bring his alternative vote top-up system into operation. He also recognises that there is no public concern over the alleged unfairness of the current system.

That is why Mr Ashdown, having got his party to buy the Jenkins proposals, needs time to convince the man in the Dog and Duck. So opponents of Jenkins are playing into his hands by going for the long grass.

If a referendum were held this side of the election it would probably be lost. Leave it to the "wait and see" tactics similar to those employed on the single currency arguments and the PR merchants wink knowingly to each other.

Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett should also play the double bluff game and go for an early referendum in this parliament.

Tonight the Selsdon Group, the free market policy group (president: Norman Tebbit) founded in protest at the U-turns of the Heath government in the early 1970s, holds its 25th anniversary dinner. Peter Mandelson has been invited to send a message of goodwill and is being hailed as the group's new pin-up boy.

In 1969 Edward Heath's shadow cabinet held a famous brainstorming manifesto session to prepare for the 1970 general election at the Selsdon Park Hotel, Croydon.

The infamous "Selsdon Man" policies of no public money for lame duck industries were born in a conference room, now known as the Heath Room where tonight's event takes place. The policies ended in ignominy when the Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce as it faced bankruptcy.

In a letter to Mr Mandelson the group is "heartened" to see him taking a position to the right of Labour or Conservative governments of the 1970s in arguing that the management and financing of Rover must be determined in the private sector and subject to free market disciplines. "In short we believe that by your actions it is clear that in your soul there is a Thatcherite waiting to get out." A spokesman for Mr Mandelson said: "Any praise or appreciation is welcome but by suggesting that the Secretary of State's policies are Thatcherite the Selsdon Group misunderstands the directions and values of New Labour."

Channel 4 in conjunction with The House Magazine is to launch the first televised award ceremony honouring MPs. The parliamentary political "Oscars" are designed to recognise achievements by MPs and peers during 1998 and most of the awards will be decided by politicians in a secret ballot.

Various categories include "parliamentary questioner" and "rising star". While Alun Michael, Paul Boateng and John Hutton would win first, second and third prizes in this week's rising star entry, following their ministerial promotions, Tory MP James Clappison is my nominee for parliamentary questioner.

Mr Clappison asked Jack Straw when he first learned of General Pinochet's arrival in the UK. The Home Secretary replied that he "became aware of the General's presence in the UK from a newspaper report which I read on the afternoon of 15 October when on a flight between Gatwick and Marseilles".

So much for the Foreign Office keeping the Home Office in the picture. Whatever happen to "joined up government"? Another case, I think, for "enforcer" Cunningham.

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