It’s not only tabloid journalists who work on the basis that they should never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story; politicians are quite adept at it as well. The only difference is that journalists define ‘good’ as being something that people will want to read, whereas politicians define ‘good’ as being helpful to their party or, more often, their own position. Either way, it’s the readers/ electors who have to try and work out where the truth actually lies – if there is any at all.
So, is the latest budget settlement for the National Assembly a good one or a bad one? Labour’s London end, in the person of the Chancellor, of course, says it’s a good one, and draws attention particularly to the fact that it includes a 2.4% year-on-year rise over and above the increase that would be down to inflation alone. Inevitably and completely unsurprisingly, Peter Hain agrees with him. But then, for the Government making the decisions, every year is a good one. That fits their agenda.
Plaid’s London end, in the person of Adam Price, claims that it’s the “worst financial settlement for Wales since devolution”. I can’t quite remember the words used in previous years to describe the settlements, but I’m reasonably sure that Plaid have never ever described the settlement as anything other than a bad one, whatever the actual numbers. That has, to date, fitted Plaid’s agenda. (It is interesting however that Plaid’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd seems to be rather less exercised about the numbers this year.)
Both parties’ Cardiff ends, of course, find themselves in a more difficult situation, so it comes as no surprise to find that the official WAG response – presumably on behalf of both parties – is a little more restrained. They are both, after all, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. Labour were never going to be too harsh on their own government, and Plaid, as their coalition partners, can hardly disagree with the official government line, so we have words like 'tough' and ‘challenging', rather than outright criticism.
Back to the issue of truth. Whilst there is some disagreement as to whether the increase over and above inflation is 2.4%, as indicated by the Chancellor, or 1.8% as calculated by Adam Price, there is no disagreement that the budget is increasing at an above-inflation rate, which clearly allows for some spending growth over and above the ongoing government programme.
The nub of the problem, of course, is whether that will be enough to fund the entire One Wales programme. We don't have the detailed comments of the civil servants on the costings of the programme (although the Western Mail is still working on that), but we do know that the programme does not come cheap. The Assembly government may struggle to deliver on all its commitments, and we can be absolutely certain that the Tory opposition will be watching for any hint of a fudge here or a watering down there.
It is Plaid who have most to fear in this situation. Core spending is hardest to cut, and the extra commitments introduced by the One Wales agreement will be the easiest - a lot of the Plaid contribution to the programme is in those extras rather than in the core. Ending up in coalition supporting a Labour programme would be a somewhat ignominious end to the story.
However, the fact that the spending round would be tighter this time round than in previous years was known by all in advance, and if the coalition partners have been sensible in their discussions, they will have factored this in, won’t they? It would be nice to feel confident on that point; but we were reminded in the Western Mail story yesterday of Adam Price’s comment that the All-Wales Accord was never properly costed, and we have only the word of the politicians involved that One Wales has been. (As a complete aside, I do find myself wondering whether, had its supporters been successful in peddling the rainbow, we would ever have been told that it was based on a back-of-the-envelope costing? Maybe I’m just a tad too cynical sometimes, but I strongly suspect that the members – outside the Assembly – of the parties involved weren’t made aware of this at the time.)
Time alone will reveal what is true and what is not, but already we are seeing a difference. What Plaid would have unreservedly condemned as a betrayal of Wales just a few short months ago in Opposition becomes nothing more than a tough challenge to be faced up to in Government. Is this change in language what politicians mean by ‘making a difference’?