18 April 2008

Paul Murphy?

This week, Alex Salmond met Paul Murphy MP to discuss the resurrection of Joint Ministerial Committees. This is an odd meeting, as Murphy is Secretary of State for Wales. Now, obviously, there needs to be a Welsh dimension to the JMCs - is for ll the UK nations after all - but it was Paul Murphy of the Wales Office, and not a member of the Welsh Assembly Government. There was no representative at all from either the Northern Ireland Executive or Northern Ireland Office. The Ministry of Justice wasn't there either. Or the Scotland Office.

So what's going on? Could it simply be a matter of finding something for Paul Murphy to do? Perhaps. Or could it be something more? Ever since 1999 there have been mutterings about the idea of axing the Scotland Office, Wales Office and NIO. Those mutterings gathered momentum after the 2003 Elections, once devolution had bedded in, at least on the mainland. Indeed, Tony Blair tried to do that, then changed his mind, maintaining the Scotland and Wales Offices as sub-departments in the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now Ministry of Justice) and keeping the title of Secretary of State, though tying it to another Cabinet member who already had a department.

But the mutterings persisted. Appointing the Secretary of State for Defence the Secretary of State for Scotland didn't go down well, and since last May, Des Browne and David Cairns (the Minister of State, who Gordon Brown said does all the work anyway) have been walking, talking arguments for their own abolition, slagging off the SNP, and undermining the leadership of Wendy Alexander, by pooh-poohing, then hi-jacking, her Constitutional Commission before it even got going. And if you look at the main rows between the two administrations, the argument over al-Megrahi kicked off when the UK Government failed to brief the Scottish Government on what was going on and how an agreement with Libya might affect them, the row over compensation payments started when DEFRA promised something then changed its mind, and the row over LIT started when Gordon Brown sent minister after minister over the border to denounce the policy. So the Scotland Office's role as a go-between, smoothing relations between Whitehall and Victoria Quay is a failure.

Meanwhile, the idealists' belief that the Scotland Office is Scotland's voice in Cabinet is muted by the fact that on any issue where Scotland has got a raw deal, its Ministers appear to have been utterly ineffectual in terms of softening the blow. The most recent Budget, for instance, was unkind to Scotland, with its tax hike on whisky. Where was Des Browne then?

And then there are the cynics, who see the Scotland Office as the Government's voice in Scotland. But on Scotland-only matters, the Scottish Government is the one in charge now, so Whitehall doesn't need a voice, while any of the political parties who could feasibly form a UK Government have presence in Holyrood so even in terms of partisanship, the Scotland Office doesn't need to be Labour's voice in Scotland: that's Wendy Alexander's job. Should the Tories win the next election, they don't need a Scotland Office to be the Conservative Party's voice in Scotland: Annabel Goldie performs that role. And on UK matters, why do we need to hear from an interlocutor at all? Why can't we hear about, for example, Work and Pensions matters from James Purnell?

So the Scotland Office appears to be fulfilling a sum total of no functions. The Wales Office is so busy that Paul Murphy can go to Scotland for a chat with Alex Salmond, so you have to wonder what its value is in 2008. That leaves Northern Ireland, which until last year was, you could argue, the biggest argument against a combined Department for the Nations and Regions: devolution was unstable, the NI Assembly had been suspended. It took the St. Andrews Agreement and the March elections to put the Assembly on a firm footing, and no one is talking about how long it's going to last anymore: the Assembly is, and right now, that's not being questioned. The one thing left to sort out is justice and policing matters, still in the hands of the NIO. If and when that gets sorted out, the Northern Ireland Office becomes as meaningful and important as the Scotland Office, with its part-time head, and the Wales Office, with its underemployed chief. That is when Gordon Brown is going to create a DNR, if he's ever going to create one.

Here's my guess:

1. Time will be allowed for the new DUP Leader Peter Robinson to get his feet under the desk as Northern Ireland's First Minister.

2. Negotiations on justice and policing will begin, most likely in August. They will take a few months to sort out. Conclusions will be reached around Christmas time.

3. Assuming successful negotiations, the transfer of powers will take place in the Spring of next year.

4. Assuming that a General Election will not be held until 2010, there will be a Cabinet re-shuffle following the European elections (or the English County Council elections if they are kept in May rather than moved back to co-incide with the election to the European Parliament). While those elections will be the trigger for the reshuffle - as the 2006 local elections were the trigger for Blair's Cabinet reshuffle that year - the final transfer of powers to Northern Ireland will be justifiation of the abolition of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices and the creation of the DNR.

So with Des Browne likely either to stay in Defence if he's lucky, or get dumped on an unwilling Duchy of Lancaster if he isn't, who is that Secretary of State going to be? Paul Murphy of the Wales Office, or Shaun Woodward of the NIO?

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