New shadow arrives amid Wales Office memories

Welsh Secretaries Image copyright Wales Office
Image caption Stephen Crabb and David Jones among other Welsh secretaries in 2014 on the 50th anniversary of the role.

"Full and interesting advice surgery this morning in Haverfordwest," reports the local MP, Stephen Crabb. "A variety of issues raised - arts funding, farming, social care, and many others. Nobody mentioned Europe, Brexit or Article 50."

The priorities of the good people of Pembrokeshire may serve as a reality check to those of us who have reported little other than Europe, Brexit or Article 50 this past fortnight (although constituency surgeries may usually feature more personal concerns).

The European Union (Notice of Withdrawal) Bill - all 137 words of it - has now cleared the House of Commons and enters the House of Lords unamended. What did we learn during its Commons stages?

'Centre stage'

Tribal loyalties sometimes mean Labour MPs don't support Plaid Cymru amendments even when they agree with them but 267 MPs backed a Plaid amendment to require the UK government to update the Welsh Assembly on the impact of Brexit. That may be a record for any Plaid amendment (you'll thank me if it comes up in a pub quiz) but the government won the vote, and every other division, comfortably.

The Commons stages were also notable for the return to centre stage of David Jones, now arguably the most powerful Welsh MP two and a half years after his sacking as secretary of state for Wales.

Mr Jones's time at the Wales Office is recalled by his successor in a fascinating interview with the Institute for Government. Within an hour of taking over, he sacked a special adviser and senior official so he could build his own team.

Stephen Crabb tells the think tank: "I think it is fair to say, and not through any fault of his, but under my predecessor at the Wales Office relations between the UK government and the Welsh Government had hit a low and it was playing quite badly in the Welsh media."

'Not rushed'

Mr Crabb also recalled his early days at the Wales Office as a part-time junior minister. "What I didn't expect was to be asked then to do this curious double-hatted arrangement where I stayed on as a whip and tried to do the parliamentary under secretary job as well.

"There is a curious history to why that happened, basically, it was a compromise fudge between Andrew Mitchell who came in as chief whip and wanted to hang on to me in the whips office and the PM who wanted me to go the Wales Office. So that was my first step into ministerial life and the truth is that being parliamentary under secretary of state in the Wales Office, one of the smallest departments in Whitehall, you're not rushed off your feet."

That may come as news to his successor-but-one, Guto Bebb, but Mr Crabb said his promotion to work and pensions secretary signalled a huge change in the volume of work from the Wales Office.

"At the Wales Office I had a box every weekend and in truth, I could whistle through it in an hour and a half," he said. "At DWP, you're getting a box every night and it's full."

'Shadow'

Back at Westminster, his successor Alun Cairns at last has a Labour shadow, two weeks after the resignation of Jo Stevens over Brexit.

Neath MP Christina Rees steps up to become the fourth shadow Welsh secretary under Jeremy Corbyn - and the fifth since the 2015 general election.

Ms Rees has been a shadow justice minister. She resigned from the frontbench last summer and supported Owen Smith's leadership challenge but was one of 33 MPs to return to the frontbench after Jeremy Corbyn's re-election.

Once married to former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, she is also a former Welsh squash champion and "strategic coach" - which may come in useful in the bumpy times ahead.

Ms Rees now has a week to learn her new role before MPs return to Westminster from their half-term recess. I'll see you after the break.