David Cameron has made a bold start to the domestic aspect of his premiership, with a visit to Scotland on Friday. Accompanied by Danny Alexander, the new Scottish Secretary, he held talks at Holyrood with the Presiding Officer and the opposition party leaders, and with Alex Salmond at St Andrew’s House. The news release from 10 Downing Street is here, and there’s coverage from the Scotsman here and the Herald here.
Much of this looks like helping create good mood music. That music is good, if not surprising; having ‘positive and constructive’ meetings, with promises of new beginnings, better co-operation, and coupled with a cash (re)payment to the Scottish Government are all what a new government needs to do at this point. The question is how this will manifest itself over the coming weeks and months. Apart from the cash (a good guest bringing a present; a leaf out of Alex Salmond’s book), the most tangible point in the No. 10 Press Notice is Cameron’s statement that he is willing to appear before the Scottish Parliament ‘if invited’. In other words, he has put the choice about this in the hands of MSPs, and allowed them to decide whether to invite someone whose accountability lies elsewhere. Given the combination of Cameron’s earlier commitments and the misgivings about this expressed in Scotland, this is an elegant way of getting out of a difficult position in terms of constitutional proprieties.
Meanwhile, the implications of the new coalition for party politics in Scotland and Wales are interesting and complex. I happened to be in the Senedd on Friday, when Cheryl Gillan (the new Secretary of State for Wales), Nick Bourne (leader of the Conservatives in the National Assembly) and Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem leader there) appeared together to mark Mrs Gillan’s first visit to Wales since her appointment. The Wales Office news release about that is here; news coverage from the BBC here and the Western Mail here (and a colour piece from the Western Mail here). Gillan was keen to emphasise the cordiality of her meeting with Carwyn Jones, but gave nothing away about timing of a referendum. It’s interesting that she plans to have meetings with Jones only every month. Peter Hain held such meetings every week. That suggests a much more ‘hands-off’ approach.
Williams was questioned by the BBC about the new arrangement. Visibly uncomfortable, she was at pains to express support for what has happened at Westminster while emphasising that the Lib Dems were not in coalition with the Conservatives in the National Assembly. This is despite the fact that the two parties share the opposition benches in the Bay, and had even agreed to enter government together (along with Plaid Cymru) in 2007. For what it’s worth, I thought she handled a difficult situation as well as it could be handled, but the position in which she finds herself evidently makes her feel deeply uncomfortable. The apprehension in Wales about the implications of a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance for the Lib Dems in the Welsh arena appears to be shared by their Scottish counterparts too.