The recent publication of the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill, together with the Conservative’s pledge to “level up” the economy, has caused the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay something of a headache, writes Crispin John.
The key issue that appears to have irked Mark Drakeford and his Government, of course, is the M4 Relief Road. This is a problem that shows no sign of disappearing any time soon, and the suggestion that the UK Government could use powers in the Internal Markets Bill to build the Newport bypass have put Welsh Ministers on red alert. Yet what is it that they are afraid of? Why do they resist a dose of much-needed medicament to the nostrils of the Welsh Dragon?
Let us remind ourselves of what is at stake here. Apart from the general regulation of goods and services within the United Kingdom, the Internal Markets Bill includes provisions to give UK Ministers new spending powers in devolved areas. These areas include economic development, infrastructure, culture, sporting activities, international educational and training activities and exchanges. Although many ERASMUS students have benefited from the ability to order cheap alcohol in several different European languages, it is the notion that the UK Government could – in theory – directly invest in Welsh infrastructure that has poked the beast in Cardiff Bay.
There is perhaps a little justification in the fear that UK Crown Ministers could override the policy of the Welsh Government and take some action against the will of the Welsh people that would be detrimental to Wales overall. And yet this makes a number of crude and unwarranted assumptions, chiefly that it would be the UK Government that would be at fault and not the administration in Wales. We do still operate under some form of democracy, even in Drakeford’s People’s Republic, and if you don’t like the actions of a particular Government, you can still have your say about it every five years by marking the appropriate X with a blunt pencil.
With the specific example of the M4 Relief Road, it was the Welsh Government, of course, who made the decision to backtrack on their manifesto commitment to deliver the project, on the grounds of cost and environmental concerns. Mark Drakeford himself, in an interview during August, said the decision was “over”. “There is no point in people hankering back to it, it prevents people from concentrating on the alternatives that we want to put in place in Wales”, he said. It was breathtaking arrogance – something which we are now used to seeing from the First Minister and his colleagues.
The fact of the matter is that the Welsh Government, on its own, would never have been able to afford the M4 Relief Road project. They would have had to go to Westminster, cap in hand, to ask for additional capital funding. The capacity for that already exists, of course – the Internal Markets Bill doesn’t change this. And yet no Welsh Labour Government would want to be seen going a Conservative UK administration for a bailout. It is a stubborn and shortsighted approach from a tired and troubled Cardiff cartel.
Of course, this is the same Welsh Labour Government who bought shiny new trains for the South Wales Valley lines, which are still sitting outside Canton Sheds over a year after they were due to be in service. It is the same Labour Party who awarded the previous Wales and Borders rail franchise to Arriva, on a zero-growth basis and with no requirement for the franchisee to invest in new rolling stock and infrastructure. It is the same Welsh Government who bought an airport nobody outside the Vale of Glamorgan can currently fly from.
Amid all the screaming and wailing of the Welsh Government, who claim that any action from Westminster on the economy and infrastructure is unjustified interference in Welsh affairs, they omit a fundamental reality. It is that the Welsh Labour Government cannot be trusted to deliver on the economy and infrastructure in Wales. Years of underinvestment in transport, in public services and in Welsh business is not a fault that can be laid at the door of Number 10 Downing Street. The blame lies squarely with Welsh Labour.
That Westminster would seek to right those wrongs is not interference. It is not a power grab. After all, the Internal Markets Bill will not take away a single power from Cardiff Bay. It is, in fact, much-needed medicine for the machinery of Wales.
It is why Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, is correct to rule out the possibility of UK Ministers using the powers of the Internal Market Bill to deliver an M4 Relief Road. He says that he would much rather that there was a spirit of collaboration, but, claims the Secretary of States, “I’m afraid there’s not just a blockage at Brynglas, there’s a blockage in Cardiff as well.”
Simon Hart is right. It is Welsh Labour who have stagnated. If the UK Government wish to fund and build an M4 Relief Road or deliver any other infrastructure project in Wales, there will be few people amongst the Welsh public and businesses lying in front of the steamrollers.
The Conservatives have an exciting plan to Unleash Britain’s potential. To Build Back Better. To Deliver a Devolution Revolution for Wales. These are not just slogans. The toppling of the Red Wall in both the North of England and in North Wales at last December’s General Election meant something.
A Wales under the Welsh Conservatives promises a future not just of investment in jobs and livelihoods. It also means a fresh approach to the Devolution settlement, and Westminster and Cardiff administrations working together. So yes, let’s unblock the nostrils of the Welsh dragon with the Vicks inhaler of one-nation Welsh Conservative can-do spirit. Let’s call Welsh Labour out on their pathetic failure to deliver on our economy and infrastructure, and let the People of Wales boot this sad excuse for a Welsh Government out of office next May.
Crispin John is a political commentator and analyst, and former Chief of Staff for UKIP in the Welsh Parliament.