Not standing still - devolution lessons

Llandudno is freezing. In fact it's freezing enough - luckily for Labour - to keep protesters fed up with plans for the NHS away, though not quite enough to stop the ebb and flow of the tide, both outside - and inside - the conference hall.

On day one of the Labour conference there were two big speeches from the first minister and the shadow Welsh secretary, two big political beasts who had something to say - to the coalition, to their audience and, on this occasion, to each other.

It was Carwyn Jones who went first. There was no lectern - just a couple of discreet glass paddles for the autocue between the first minister and his audience in Llandudno. They're great things when they work well - autocue paddles, not audiences - not so handy when they seize up mid speech. It seemed things were in danger of freezing inside as well as out.

But Mr Jones kept going, the autocue came back to life and the messages started flowing pretty freely.

On devolution, he kept it simple. "I have to tell you conference, devolution can't sit still. The present settlement is unclear and needs to be changed."

In the audience was Peter Hain, architect of that settlement. On the stage, listening and smiling, was Owen Smith, knowing it would be his turn next.

The message was, said Mr Jones, aimed at a Tory Government in Westminster who would "be able to abolish the assembly at a whim" if it wanted to - not, you might argue, that likely.

Perhaps it was a message for the coalition- but it was aimed no less at those Welsh Labour MPs who wonder whether devolution isn't flowing just a bit too freely at the moment. There were one or two in the hall who'd been there when a first ministerial "roasting" was administered in Westminster a few weeks ago. This was for their ears too.

Personal side

Next, health. That can't stand still either.

"It would be easy as a government, to do nothing. To just sit back and manage decline. But ... let me be clear. There is no bigger threat to the National Health Service in Wales than saying "there's no need for change".

The protesters outside - far fewer than had been expected thanks to the weather - won't like it but the message was this: I've changed the minister, don't take that as a sign that I'm about to change the policy.

He spoke of his wife Lisa's fight with leukaemia. "The NHS was there for her - for us". He mentioned too his own illness as a baby - he'd spent weeks in an incubator - offering a good deal of his personal side, something we rarely see much of in Cardiff Bay.

Was this a man under pressure using painful personal experience to defend himself, I asked him later. There are times, he told me, when it just feels right to share these things.

New kids on block

Then came what sounded very much like more defence, this time of the Cabinet reshuffle, one that caused some MPs to wonder whether Mr Jones finds it hard to sack his friends.

"Compared to most of us, the Tory-led government in London are the new kids on the block!" he thundered. Message? Keeping experience in my cabinet was the right thing to do. The new kids on the backbenches in the Bay will get their turn.

A quick round of interviews and then, all change. Mr Jones took the smiling and clapping, mind-your-body-language seat at the top table, Mr Smith took to the lectern.

He warmed up his audience with rugby references, warmed the cockles of Labour hearts with his take on last week's Budget - "the best George Osborne hoped to do was not to screw it up like he did last year" - and went on the attack over growth predictions that fell flat, borrowing predictions that have soared.

So far, so easy for Mr Jones to nod and smile.

'Shift and evolve'

But then the shadow Welsh secretary moved on to devolution, and took out of his pocket a couple of rocks, ones with pretty sharp edges that he fully intended to lob in the Welsh government's direction.

"Unless we are vigilant, devolution can risk division and dilution of our collective means and our redistributive principles - and of the fiscal union which allows us to exercise them."

Mr Jones sat up straight (and sat still).

"I know conference, that we in Welsh Labour will not let that happen."

He didn't add "will we Carwyn?" - but he might have.

"Devolution ... will shift and evolve" he said, "ebb and flow".

And on the future devolution of some tax raising powers?

Roundtable discussion

"As the Silk Commission most recently spelled out: we raise around £18bn per year in Wales and we spend around £30bn - a reflection of our location and our industrial past - a past which helped secure the wealth of Britain, but which has left an enduring and challenging legacy in Wales".

In other words any talk of acting alone is a nonsense. It is dishonest to suggest Wales would be any better off "by our acting alone".

There was plenty of which the two men agreed. There was, what they might call, some "synergy" in their thinking. But there was plenty of evidence too of tensions that Labour will have to resolve in more direct language pretty soon.

As I write both men are taking part in a roundtable discussion on devolution. It's not open to the media. The fact that such a discussion is happening at all is, you may well argue, a healthy sign in itself. Few in Llandudno believe it would have happened just a few years ago. But let's face it - admitting in public that you have some dirty washing to deal with is one thing. Putting it through the ringer and mangle for all to see is quite another.

Tomorrow, Ed Miliband swaps Birmingham for Llandudno and - we're told - will take part in a question and answer session. Great news, said a colleague. We can just ask him point blank whose side he's on: Carwyn's or Owen's?