First Minister’s Questions in the National Assembly often leaves me cold. It possesses neither the high camp of Westminster nor the serious scrutiny of an Assembly debate or Committee hearing where people actually care and are really interested in the answers they receive. Far too often First Minster’s Questions lack substance and often feel a bit glib.
This is not the fault of any person or party but the First Minister is the key person in setting the tone and he is perhaps a little too careful about what he says. His answers are always well delivered but they are not necessarily great debating stands. Partly this is down to changed context. It is too easy for Carwyn to blame Cameron or Clegg in a way that Rhodri was never able to blame Blair, even if he had wanted to.
It is easy – and to his mind right – to refer to the Westminster government as the root of all evil. Maybe it is also to do with Carwyn’s legal background. He is precise in his language and does not like giving hostages to fortune.
The quality of the exchanges are also rather patchy. All too often the balls the First Minister are bowled are predictable. Sometimes they deal with the events of the previous week rather than a contemporary issue or, Even worse, sometimes they are the same ones as the week before. It often induces a sense of déjà vu as you try and stay with a whole hour of exchanges that regularly have lost all sense of oomph by half way through (if they possessed any oomph at all).
It has not always been so. With Rhodri Morgan there would always be a random tangent every week. His eclectic memories and ability for total recall, especially relating to sporting matters, often made him a little like a political Bob Monkhouse, being able to link anecdotes on varying topics during a journey that only Rhodri could navigate. It was often bewildering to behold, but at least there was something on a weekly basis that would make you listen because you weren’t quite sure where he was going to go next. He mostly didn’t say anything new but it was entertaining in the way it unfolded.
Last week Carwyn captured a bit of the Rhodri spirit. Parts of the Senedd were more than a little taken aback when he responded to a question on Tuesday on the economic value of ports by reflecting:
“I did notice the Scottish Government no longer wishes to have the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, it no longer wishes to house the UK naval nuclear fleet. There will be more than a welcome for that fleet and those jobs in Milford Haven.”
Since Carwyn does not do unscripted or off the cuff, it was clearly a planned response, and a political line he wanted to set out clearly.
This missile certainly hit its target on the Plaid benches, prompting the entire party to become animated for the remainder of the day in condemning the “lazy approach to policy development” and responding with the now customary online petition. It will also cause a bit of fallout in Labour too, which has its own section of opponents to nuclear weapons, some of whom sit on the Assembly benches.
Most impactfully, however, it made the transition to the broader media and therefore will have reached people in their homes through the news. A central problem with the Assembly in the past is that because it has lacked powers it has also lacked the ability to make a regular impact on people – to get them to notice, to listen, and then get them talking. An invitation from the First Minister like this, and certainly the way in which Plaid and the media have responded, means there is a chance that this is an issue, however hypothetical, which has the potential to do just that.
Without getting into the whys and wherefores of nuclear deterrence – some of us did enough of that in the 1980s – what Carwyn achieved on Tuesday last week was to “do a Rhodri” with a twist. It was a tangent with a purpose and with politics.
And the Assembly desperately needs more politics and more surprises. Political consensus may not be as persistent as it once was in the Senedd, but it still often feels too cosy or contrived, lacking edge and bite. That is a collective problem and if Carwyn can say something as sharp every week then politics in Wales will be that little bit more interesting and that little bit more meaningful.