Commission keeps calm and carries on

I don't know what sort of reading material you keep by your bedside and let's face it, I'm not sure I want to know - but if the UK government's submission to the Silk Commission does indeed count as bedside reading, I imagine you've got through it by now.

It's a weighty piece of work, more academic tome than pamphlet as they put it in the Wales Office - an exercise in governance that hasn't been undertaken in many years and a valuable, proper contribution to the process of considering where the devolution journey has got us, and whether we'd be wise to stop now, or press on.

It was not, they stressed, a directive to a commission that the coalition government itself set up. Where would be the logic in that? It was rather "the corporate view of the British government" according to the Welsh Secretary, David Jones. That view was pretty much that things ain't broke, so what would be the point in fixing them? All the same at the Wales Office, they await the recommendations of Paul Silk and his commission, due next February, with interest.

In fewer than 140 character Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards deemed it "113 pages of drivel." The Conservative group leader in Cardiff Bay, Andrew R T Davies, took just a few more characters and took to the airwaves to suggest that you can either "be progressive or stand still like a dinosaur". No prizes for guessing who, in that scenario, Mr Davies had in a T-Rex costume.

Out loud the Welsh Government said relatively little, observing a gentleman's agreement with the UK Government not to attack each other's submissions in public. Privately ministers and those close to them used words like "disgraceful". "Nick Bourne must be considering his position" said another. Where does the Silk Commission go from here, we asked one well placed individual in Cardiff Bay. "They're stuffed" came the response. "What kind of government lays out to its own independent commission exactly what it thinks the outcome should be?" The Welsh Government's hopes aren't high when it comes to the final report, it's fair to say.

There was, of course, no submission at all from the Labour party. The Welsh Government's view has been spelled out clearly but the party it represents has resisted the invitation to share its "corporate view". Imagine, said one UK government source with a twinkle in their eye - a once in a decade opportunity to engage in the debate about the future of devolution for Wales and the Labour party decides against saying anything at all. Why, they wondered? Well, no, they didn't really. They were pretty certain they knew why - because Carwyn Jones' view doesn't mirror that of his wider party. In fact they suspected they saw more distortion and contortion to come in Labour ranks than anything else. One source described Welsh Labour MPs as "sleeper cells" just itching to stand up and spell out what they really think.

The MPs I've spoken to put it less dramatically - but powerfully enough. Delivery must come first. Until better things are being delivered in Wales with the powers the government already has, Mr Jones should beware of calling for more responsibilities, or for parity with Scotland if voters there stop short of voting yes for independence. It's all well and good "fancying the shiny new lawnmower someone else has got" said one MP but he'd never thought it a good strategy.

So that's how they all saw it. But what about Mr Silk and his commissioners?

The impression I get is that they are staying calm and carrying on. They have a job to do and must get on with doing it. Others may have seen a big, red no entry sign being held up by the government in Westminster but I'm told Mr Silk does not. It may be obvious which side of the road the coalition would prefer them to stay but if the commissioners agree that the other side of the road is better, they won't be afraid to say so.

So what happens next?

All the written evidence submitted to Silk is due to be published midweek - and that should give a clue to where the commission goes next in terms of selecting those topics that crop up again and again. They're bound to want to consider issues such as energy, policing, broadcasting - the usual suspects if you like. It may read more like a discussion document than Part One, which made concrete and timetabled recommendations, but the commission will seek unanimity where possible, and in those circumstances, recommend change or no change as the evidence strikes them.

Talking of Part One, relating to greater financial accountability for Wales, the Commission will be watching the UK Government's response to its recommendations very closely indeed. They'll want to see how much is taken on board, how much is rejected, and how much gets kicked into the long grass. You suspect that if a decent number of their plans are adopted by the Treasury, then they'll get on with Part Two with a spring in their step.

Incidentally, if you're examining which new responsibilities should be devolved to Wales - if any - then there's a feeling that it wouldn't be politic not to consider whether evidence points to any powers going the other way. I doubt if you'd hear the word "repatriation" pass their lips but if commissioners receive a large volume of submissions questioning the Assembly's capacity to deal with its current areas of responsibility, they'll surely look at it. The tricky drafting part here will be exemplifying the issue of capacity without mounting a direct critique of current government policy. Good luck on that one.

What's the wider picture emerging, now that Part One is published and both governments have laid their cards on the table ready for Part Two?

It's more than a question of emphasis. It strikes me there's a distinct contrast starting to show through. We'll see in a few weeks how the UK Government responds to Part One, but the constant refrain throughout from Westminster has been - it's time for the Welsh Government to take on more financial responsibility for the money it spends, and not come begging for more handouts. A is for accountability.

Carwyn Jones and his colleagues in the Bay are far more suspicious on this one, of both the benefits and the motives. They'll countenance some very limited tax raising powers in peripheral areas, in return for borrowing rights. Fast forward to Part Two, and it's role reversal time. The Welsh Government has put in a wide ranging, push-the-boat-out opening gambit, knowing full well that this time, it's the UK Government that's on the spot, and equally suspicious of the motives and benefits to Wales of many of the proposals.

What of the wider future?

Well, Silk II is due to report next Spring. Within around 12 months, we'll know the result of the Scottish independence referendum, but even more crucially, the result of the 2015 General Election. This is why Commission members' glasses are still more than half full - because they are well aware that their final report will feed into a much wider debate about where Wales fits into the UK political system, one that could look very different from where we are now.