Friday, 24 January 2014

Liveliness at the Gwyn Hall

It's a pity that Kirsty Williams had to drop out of tonight's recording of Any Questions? from Neath and that the only Liberal Democrat available on Lisa Jenkinson's standby list was Lord Steel of Aikwood rather than another member of the Welsh party. David Steel had to diplomatically decline to answer questions on Welsh education and NHS. If Kirsty had been there, she would have pointed out the big per-pupil spending gap between England and Wales. She might well have drawn attention to the demonstrably dangerous delays in our ambulance service.

We all gave Carwyn Jones a rough ride on these last two matters. In a county borough which returns two Labour MPs with large majorities, one would have expected a more sympathetic audience, but not on education and health.

David Steel gave a statesmanlike answer to a question about Chris Rennard, implying the solution that most of us want to see now, that of mediation. His opening joke that only the Liberal Democrats could be at the centre of a sex scandal where there was no sex drew appreciative laughter. The audience clearly agreed with him that there were more important issues* in the world. Jill Evans was right to point out that there was a healthier atmosphere in a Welsh party which had a female leader, president and chief executive - bravo Plaid Cymru - but Kirsty would have reminded her that Welsh Liberal Democrats got there first. I can believe Carwyn Jones when he said that if complaints about misbehaviour reached him he would have stamped it out immediately - but of course the Labour Party operates as a dictatorship, while we are if anything too democratic. The question is whether such complaints would have reached him in the first place. The pressure on young prospective candidates to keep their heads down must be very strong in Labour, where competition for the party's nominations is cutthroat.

More hypocritical was Jones' attack on David Cameron for the PM's refusal to join in the tokenism of the UN's call for developed nations to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. Cameron's answer in Wednesday's parliamentary question time was rather more nuanced than his critics make out, but I hope to write more on this in connection with next Wednesday's Commons debate on the subject. Suffice to say that he supported a government which separated refugee children from their parents and locked them up in Yarl's Wood, or reckoned that a homophobic East African state was a safe place for an out lesbian, who had already been raped to "reform" her, to return to.

The only member of the panel I haven't mentioned is Michael Fabricant. I am not saying he was under the influence of alcohol - perhaps he had been taking medication for a medical condition - but the Lichfield MP was loud, argumentative, repetitive and slightly less coherent than he is at Welsh Questions.

The programme is repeated at 13:10 tomorrow on Radio 4 and will also be available on the iPlayer.

* BBC keep worrying at this and one wonders why. A recent suggestion is that a sex scandal involving a senior Conservative back-bencher is about to break and the party spin machine is prevailing on its friends in Broadcasting House to throw as much mud elsewhere as possible.

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