In her speech to the Liberal Democrat conference here in Birmingham, the main aim of Welsh party leader Kirsty Williams was to remind members that they should ‘get up off their knees’ and defend decisions by Lib Dem ministers taken in coalition government.
But a good portion of her speech was also devoted to making some serious criticism, primarily and unsurprisingly about Labour’s record in governing Wales.
More surprising was a strong attack on the Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan.
This has been a conference full of general criticism of Conservatives and Conservatism but specific attacks on specific ministers have been frowned upon.
That didn’t stop Kirsty Williams saying in her speech that it’s Liberal Democrat ministers, namely Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, who are driving the so-called Calman-style process (see earlier posts) through cabinet, not Cheryl Gillan.
“Do you think we can rely on a Conservative Secretary of State to deliver? The Conservative understanding of devolution is too shallow. The Secretary of State’s accountability to the people of Wales is too tenuous.”
When I spoke to Kirsty Williams after her speech I asked her why she’d attacked a minister in the coalition government her party belongs to.
“It’s clear to me that if we want to see greater devolution, it’s the Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table who are pushing that agenda; it’s my colleagues. And it’s the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition which will deliver on that promise (of a Calman-style process).”
I gather the Secretary of State’s office, which had been told about the general remarks about Calman, was taken by surprise by the personal nature of the attack which they noted ‘with regret’ as an ‘unnecessary distraction.’
One source told me that Kirsty Williams was in danger of repeating Plaid Cymru’s ‘mistake’ of attacking its coalition partners and that ‘she may not be in coalition but her party is.’
On the specifics, I was told that the Welsh secretary had a ‘record of delivery that stood up to scrutiny’ in areas such as rail electrification and the recent referendum and the subsequent transfer of power to the Assembly.
As for the Lib Dem ministers ‘pushing’ the Calman agenda, the source said that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander were certainly part of the process, but then ‘so are a lot of other people; the Secretary of State’s approach is to build consensus.’
It doesn’t seem there’s much consensus building between her and Kirsty Williams.