Welsh economy facing "crunch time"

The man they call Tarzan was the star turn at the Welsh Government's Council for Economic Renewal at their Cathays Park HQ today.

Lord Heseltine wasn't keen on doing media interviews during his visit but his presence was a flamboyant example of what seems, on the face of it at least, to be a new spirit of co-operation on the economy between the Welsh and UK administrations.

After the meeting, the business leaders present remarked that the presence of Lord Heseltine, along with the Trade Minister Lord Green provided some reassurance that the two governments are now more focused on getting the Welsh economy going than scoring political points off each other in the elusive search for growth.

Image caption Striving to make "increasingly strong links" abroad

During his monthly press conference afterwards, the First Minister turned his eyes abroad in that search, pledging to boost his government's presence abroad by working more closely with UKTI - where having a Welsh presence could "add value". He pinpointed the west coast of the US and the Gulf as areas where this could reap dividends. "Scotland have 14 people out in the Gulf, we have one" he said. In future, we will have two.

But there was also a strange defensiveness about Carwyn Jones' words, bending over backwards to stress that this increased overseas presence would not mean new offices, but rather "co-locating" with UKTI as necessary.

The International Business Wales saga clearly casts a long shadow, where hundreds of credit card receipts of WAG officials working to promote Wales abroad and released under the Freedom of Information Act, severely embarrassed Rhodri Morgan's then administration. And the earlier decision to get rid of the Welsh Development Agency altogether and take economic development and the hunt for inward investment in-house remains a highly contentious one in the business community. Just read this, this and this to appreciate the way the acronym (let alone the acrimony) refuses to fade away.

So it's perhaps hardly surprising that Carwyn Jones is treading carefully when it comes to this area. But asked about relations with the UK Government post-reshuffle, now that Cheryl Gillan has been replaced as Welsh Secretary by David Jones, he had a blunt message: "We're not the opposition".

A tacit admission that he and Labour in Wales have burnished their credentials in the past as an upstart government standing up to its much larger Westminster counterpart? Maybe. Will he and his Cabinet be able to resist a few more pops at Cameron, Clegg and co once the rough and tumble of daily politics gets underway in Cardiff Bay from tomorrow onwards? Perhaps. Only perhaps.

But for today at least, peace appears to have broken out between our two sets of rulers. And not before time is the feeling of many who were there. Speaking after the meeting, the CBI's Welsh director warned the Welsh economy is facing "crunch time" and cannot afford another quarter of stagnant growth before the start of 2013. The FSB's man in the meeting made the same point. What had been said around the table was good but 'minting' brand new policies is one thing (I liked that use of the word 'mint'); delivering policies that deliver growth is hard work but that is what needs to happen soon, very soon.

Whether a renewed spirit of co-operation will be enough to get it moving is far from clear but there's certainly relief that the new term has kicked off in grown up mood.