Inside Parliament: Jeers turn to cheers as rebel follows revivalist

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Being just one day after St David's Day, the Commons yesterday debated Welsh affairs. An English Tory minister lectured Welsh MPs, almost all of a different political hue, on what was good for the Principality and they, in turn, heaped him with opprobrium. This has been the pattern of the annual Welsh affairs debate since 1978 when the dearth of Conservatives with seats in Wales forced Baroness Thatcher to appoint an English MP as Secretary of State - exiling the suspect Peter [now Lord] Walker in the process. Today only six of the 38 Welsh constituencies are held by Tories. Mr Walker, and to a lesser extent David Hunt, at least practised a degree of interventionism which suited the majority in Wales. Not so their successor, the unreconstructed Thatcherite John Redwood, MP for home counties Wokingham. Dafydd Wigley, the leader of Plaid Cymru, put the central complaint to the Prime Minister at Question Time. "When the post of Secretary of State for Wales was created, the idea was to have someone in the Cabinet from Wales to speak from personal experience for the needs and aspirations of the people of Wales, something quite clearly the present incumbent is incapable of doing," Mr Wigley said. He cited an opinion poll this week as showing "a two to one majority in Wales for the powers of the Welsh Office to be answerable to a parliament in Wales rather than a governor general. "Will the Prime Minister stop having his intransigent attitude towards this question and allow the people of Wales to have at least some semblance of national democracy." Mr Major replied: "In general, if the answer to the question is more politicians, then it is the wrong question." During Mr Redwood's period as Secretary of State, Wales had benefited from a steady stream of inward investment from the US and the Pacific Rim and a considerable improvement in the quality of life and standards of living, he said. "An extra tier of government that would suck a great deal of authority from local councils in Wales isn't the way forward."

Opening the debate, Mr Redwood said he believed in true devolution, in a Wales where free institutions - the family, churches and companies - should also be sources of strength and moral consideration. "We do not want Cardiff and London to be mere lobby towns, where the politically correct mingle with the glitterati and the hired hands. "Lobbyists and spin doctors deserve each other. The politically correct obey the lobbyist. The politically astute obey the people." Mr Redwood said British Conservatives should take heart from the American revival in Conservative beliefs. "American fashions in politics are often followed a year or to later in Britain." Repeatedly pressed on when he was going to talk about Wales, he met concerns about unemployment in the Valleys with eulogy to information technology and the Internet. "Politicians should interfere less and be true to their word," he said. But Ron Davies, for Labour, said democracy in Wales was in a shambles and social divisions were deeper "as the super-rich become ultra-rich at the expense of the poor. "And presiding over all of that is a party whose members, whose government and whose cabinet are split from top to bottom and a Secretary of State for Wales who is barely in touch with reality."

Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor turned Euro-rebel, entered the Commons to a loud cheer from Labour backbenchers after voting with them at the close of Wednesday's debate on the Government policy. Dennis Skinner reserved a place for him on the Opposition bench below the gangway with "For Lamont" displayed on the back of an Order Paper but the rebel took his usual seat and chatted, apparently amiably, with Tory colleagues. Mr Major shrugged off the disloyalty and narrow five vote majority during an exchange with Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness and Sutherland. "As the Prime Minister failed to persuade the his campaign manager, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of Maastricht, on Europe, how can he hope to persuade anyone else?" However Mr Major replied: "What has piqued Mr Maclennan is that I managed to persuade a sufficient number of people into my lobby to win the vote." He went on to describe Wednesday as "a very excitable day" and said a number of Labour sceptics had "flatly contradicted" the speech by Tony Blair. But Mr Skinner struck again. "We all voted in the same lobby," barked the MP for Bolsover. Earlier, during Treasury Questions, Kenneth Clarke quoted Mr Major's qualified acceptance that monetary union did not necessarily mean political union. He seemed also to endorse leaving open the question of a referendum on a single currency though GordonBrown, the shadow chancellor, wondered if Mr Clarke now regretted saying those who desired one were "slightly up the creek".

The Prime Minister told MPs he will not be supporting the backbench Bill to ban hunting which comes before the Commons for second reading today. He will instead be at Chequers, holding a day of policy discussions with all his ministers of state.