Cool Redwood ruffles the Welsh dragon

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The Independent Online
THE BOLD blue and red logo and the Conservative party name are puzzlingly absent. There is nothing to suggest that the two-storey house hidden behind trees in the affluent Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch is headquarters of the Welsh Conservatives. The anonymity is intentional; the 'secret' address proof of the long siege of the Tories in hostile Wales.

'We don't advertise our whereabouts,' explained a party official. 'We have been attacked several times by Welsh language activists. They pour glue in the fax machine, spray paint, and vandalise.'

It is tough being Tory in Wales. Since the introduction of the secret ballot in 1868, Wales has almost become a Conservative-free zone. In Scotland, Tories can dream of clawing back lost support. In Wales there never really was any. The Tories hold just six of the country's 38 seats and only three of these are 'safe'.

With so few MPs, the party finds it difficult to recruit home-grown candidates of ministerial calibre. But party workers, still labouring to concoct that winning brand of Welsh Conservatism, were dismayed when it was announced last May that John Redwood, the right-wing MP for Wokingham, was to be the Secretary of State for Wales. With his claim to Welshness no stronger than a couple of family holidays, Mr Redwood, a former Oxford don whose cold, analytical demeanor has earned him the nickname Vulcan, was about to rendezvous with aliens.

The post of Welsh Secretary was created in 1964 and Mr Redwood is not the first English Tory to be imposed on the Welsh like a governor-general - that honour went to Lord Walker when he was banished to the valleys by Mrs Thatcher in 1987. But he proved wet and charming and his battle to prove the worth of old-fashioned interventionist Toryism over Thatcherism made him popular with the natives.

The Prime Minister, under pressure to balance his cabinet, had little choice in the appointment of Mr Redwood. But opposition MPs' warnings that Mr Redwood - who is 42 and entered the Commons in 1987 - would be as welcome as 'a rat sandwich' struck a chord with all but the hardiest of Welsh Tory Party workers.

'Everyone was apprehensive,' a party activist admitted last week. 'He seemed so cold and he was considered so removed that Tristan Garel-Jones (the former Foreign Office minister) nicknamed him JV - just visiting.

'He also had the reputation of being a great intellectual, which is always a disadvantage in politics. But we have been very pleasantly surprised. He is shy and probably a bit of a loner but as soon as you get to know him the coolness evaporates. You find out he is human; that he has a sense of humour.'

The rest of Wales has yet to wake up to Mr Redwood's comic talent. His first nine months have been dogged by complaints about infrequent visits and even fewer overnight stays.

The Western Mail claimed that in the first five months as Welsh Secretary Mr Redwood spent just one night in Wales. Government and party officials hedge about his recent overnight record but do not deny such stays are rare.

'The flat in the Welsh Office isn't exactly homely or luxurious,' said a party official. 'And he lives less than two hours up the motorway.' Mr Redwood complains he is the first politician to be criticised for wanting to sleep with his own wife.

The Welsh Office insists its new boss spends no less time in Wales than his predecessors and that it is normal practice for the Welsh Secretary to spend two days in Wales and three days at the small Welsh headquarters in London.

But his critics remain unconvinced. 'Wales means nothing to him,' said a Cardiff journalist. 'It is nothing more than a platform. For Mr Redwood, the world economy is the issue and there is no reason why Wales should be any different from Wokingham.'

Rhodri Morgan, Labour's spokesman on Welsh affairs, says Mr Redwood has no time for Wales. 'He treats the job like a 9 to 5. He is much more interested in being on the BBC, and when he is he hardly ever mentions Wales.'

Suspicion that Mr Redwood has no respect for Wales increased last week when he ordered the Welsh Development Agency to stop selling Wales as a region of Europe. Mr Redwood, a staunch Euro-sceptic, has ordered that WDA publicity instead highlight Wales as a part of the UK and that the Union Jack be given prominance over the Welsh Dragon. The Welsh are outraged. Mr Morgan complains that Mr Redwood seems to regard his homeland as no more than a suburb of Wokingham.

According to Dr Mervyn Jones, head of Welsh history at the University of Wales, Bangor, Mr Redwood is simply following the tradition set by Lord Walker in recognising the power of the Welsh Office.

From just a few employees and limited powers, the Welsh Office has expanded to assume responsibility for most government departments including health, social security, education and agriculture. It now employs more than 2,000 staff.

'The Welsh Secretary is free to talk on almost any issue he fancies,' said Dr Jones.

Mr Redwood has exploited the breadth to criticise everything from his own party's health policy to the behaviour of single mothers. It is a useful job for a man anxious to maintain a high profile in the run-up to a possible Conservative leadership battle.

Wales is also giving Mr Redwood, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, a chance to try to soften his public image. Mr Redwood, who plays cricket for a Wokingham team, has always been considered rather boring. Journalists charged to do colour portraits invariably can find no colour.

His social awkwardness and physical manner have led journalists to portray him as a Thunderbird who must avoid standing against dark backgrounds in case the strings show.

It was Mr Redwood himself who hinted that inside the Thunderbird there was a warm, human being trying to get out. In December he told stunned businessmen at a CBI dinner in Cardiff that he wanted to be 'as popular as Mr Blobby' and was considering employing an image consultant.

At the Tory's Cardiff headquarters this week new 'soft focus' portraits of Mr Redwood had just arrived. Party officials were keen to emphasise the warmer side to the man who has suggested benefits be withheld from single mothers until absent fathers are forced home to face their responsibilities.

But Mr Redwood does have some admirers in Wales. 'I like him because unlike the rest he doesn't pretend to have developed an overnight passion for Wales,' said a local radio reporter. 'And you have to admire the man's intellect and the way he has stood up to very hostile media.'

Dr Jones agrees: 'My impression is that people with very different politics are developing a grudging respect for him because he is honest, to the point and plain speaking.

'There is none of the soft soap that the Welsh disliked in his predecessors.'

Russell Goodway, leader of Labour-controlled South Glamorgan Council, regularly negotiates with Mr Redwood on behalf of Welsh county councils. He says Mr Redwood is 'out of the pram' politically but surprisingly likeable as a man. Others are mystified by the friendship between the two men but Mr Goodway believes that beneath the dogma is a human side.

Mr Goodway is reluctant to discuss a private visit by the Welsh Secretary to the deprived Ely estate in Cardiff in December. But Mr Goodway conducted the half-day tour at Mr Redwood's request and he believes the Welsh Secretary was affected by conditions.

A few weeks later Mr Redwood sanctioned a pounds 65,000 grant for a school in Ely. But then he made a speech insisting there was no reason why poor children should not achieve the same academic success as middle-class children.

The remoulding of Mr Redwood's public face continues. At a gathering of lecturers and businessmen outside Cardiff on Friday Mr Redwood opened his address successfully with a little humour.

'Did you catch the joke at the beginning?' said the man from the Welsh Office. 'How can people say he doesn't have a sense of humour?'

(Photographs omitted)