THE CONSERVATIVE Party is investigating senior Senedd members and staff’s attendance at a lockdown lock-in held on December 8.
The allegations concern a meeting in the Members’ tearoom between Labour backbencher Alun Davies and Conservative group members and their support staff.
Conservative Chief of Staff Paul Smith, Darren Millar MS the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, and Preseli Pembrokeshire MS, the Conservative Group Leader Paul Davies attended the meeting.
The incident took place on December 8, barely a week after hospitality businesses in Wales were forced to close.
Those present claim they met in the members’ tea room to discuss legislation for possible inclusion in the Welsh Conservative manifesto with the former Labour Cabinet Minister.
On December 8, the Senedd finished early because of technical issues with webcasting equipment. The record of the adjourned shows the Plenary Session attended by members ended around 5:45 in the evening.
The Sun newspaper alleges that drinking continued until the early hours of the following (Wednesday) morning.
‘WE DIDN’T BREAK THE RULES’
Those attending deny any breach of the lockdown rules.
A joint statement from Paul Davies, Darren Millar, and Paul Smith said: “We are profoundly sorry for our actions.
“While we did not break the rules, we recognise that what was part of a day’s work would not be seen to be following the spirit of them, especially given the tough time the country has been going through.”
Monmouth Conservative MS Nick Ramsay was named among those present in the tearoom at the time. His name was not, however, attached to the joint statement referred to above.
On Wednesday (January 20), Mr Ramsay denied he attended any ‘gathering’ on the day in question
However, his statement is profoundly unhelpful to the others named.
Through his solicitor, Mr Ramsay confirmed he was at the tea room on his own at the Senedd, without an invitation from anyone else, after work.
“He was hungry, and he wanted to get something to eat. He was working on an article for the Argus (his local newspaper). He sat on his own and was socially distanced,” said his solicitor.
“He attended the tea room at approximately 6 pm. He had chicken curry. He left at about 8 pm. Others came in whilst he was there, but it was not a ‘gathering’ Mr Ramsay was part of.”
Taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, he spent two hours in the tea room, and there was ’a gathering’, with people coming in and out.
Two hours is a long time to discuss an uncontroversial potential manifesto pledge with a Government backbencher.
Again, taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, an inference exists that the ‘gathering’ continued after he left.
If The Sun’s claims that the ‘manifesto discussions’ extended to 2:00 am are accurate – and an internal probe by the Senedd Commission is bound to find out – those involved are doomed.
MILLAR’S WORDS HAUNT TORIES
Darren Millar’s presence intensifies the Conservatives’ embarrassment at talking the talk but not walking the walk.
In May, Mr Millar led calls for Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething to be sacked for eating a bag of chips in a park with one of his own children.
When it comes to words a speaker might regret in the future, Darren Millar’s video demand for Vaughan Gething’s dismissal is one hell of a hill to choose to die upon.
It doesn’t help when your party leader doubles down on the same issue, by alluding to it in a television interview months later.
“I don’t think anybody should break the rules,” Paul Davies said, seizing the moral high ground in an ITV Wales interview from September.
“The rules were there whether you were travelling to Barnard Castle or you were travelling to buy some chips. No one should have been breaking the rules.”
Suppose the Conservative Party follows the logic of their previously stated positions. In that case, Mr Millar’s and Mr Davies’ futures look bleak indeed.
Number 10’s response was less than a ringing endorsement.
Speaking at a lobby briefing, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said she had not spoken to the prime minister about whether Paul Davies should stay.
She added: “The prime minister needs everybody – no matter their status, no matter their position in life – to be going above and beyond in following the rules on Covid.”
To his credit, Vaughan Gething rejected the opportunity to knife Mr Millar when asked about the lockdown lock-in.
With a Senedd election only months away, the revelations have thrown the Conservatives into disarray.
Bitter recriminations have whistled around the media, involving briefing and counter-briefing from within the Conservative Party’s own ranks.
Candidates who are justifiably angry and at the sharp end of voters’ reactions have been told to shut up. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for who leaked the story.
This writer can confirm he was told about an unspecified issue involving chief whip Darren Millar before Christmas. Supposing it referred to Mr Millar’s personal life, he shelved it.
Just after the New Year, he was told Central Office was examining an issue concerning the Chief Whip and Chief of Staff.
More details emerged about an alleged party in the Senedd during lockdown which involved Senedd Members and their staff. At this stage, ten days ago at the time of writing, the story’s bones were in place. Shortly afterwards, we discovered national media already had much of the same information.
We probed further and, this Tuesday afternoon decided we had enough to publish. We invited the Conservative group press office to respond.
With the Welsh Government under increasing criticism after Mark Drakeford’s disastrous appearance on Radio Four on Monday, an opportunity to spike the Conservative guns was desperately needed.
One theory runs that Alun Davies, the Labour Member concerned, was turned in by another member of the Labour group – a Regional Member of the Senedd – who dislikes him.
It is not going too far to suppose that throwing Alun Davies under the bus to get at the Conservatives’ big guns was a price Labour thought worth paying.
The Labour press office’s statement and Alun Davies’ carefully-phrased appeared in Cardiff-based media minutes after we broke the story online.
We hadn’t even requested a comment from Labour before publishing our original article.
Having a statement ready, showed remarkable foresight by Labour’s spin machine.
None of the above distracts from the embarrassment the Conservatives have suffered.
That has not prevented a certain amount of gallows humour.
Among the tarter observations made to The Herald by one insider was that after going so aggressively at Vaughan Gething over ‘Chipgate’, things couldn’t have rebounded on a more deserving Welsh Conservative than Darren Millar.
Paul Davies is widely respected as a decent man whose own moderate and constructive instincts were pushed aside in favour of more combative and aggressive messaging.
The Conservatives’ tone in their media statements and appearances has notably calmed down in the last couple of months.
Some insiders claim Paul Davies’ failure to clamp down on his candidates’ anti-devolution rhetoric is a sign of weak leadership. They say failing to be upbeat about devolution could reap the whirlwind at elections to the Senedd.
However, the blame doesn’t all lie with Paul Davies; the nonsensically fractured leadership model the Conservatives have in Wales is also to blame.
Conservative MS David Melding wrote that an alien landing at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Llandudno who asked to be taken to the leader, would have three possible candidates: Simon Hart MP, Lord Davies of Gower (the Party Chair), or Paul Davies MS.
Where there are three centres of power, there are competing interests and egos. That causes friction. And friction produces a lot of heat and not much light.
If Paul Davies stood down, there are not many options to replace him.
David Melding and Angela Burns (the most moderate and most politically able respectively) are standing down.
Darren Millar would be out of the running.
Nick Ramsay’s problems with his Monmouthshire constituency rule him out.
Laura Anne Jones succeeded the late Oscar Ashgar last year, although she has previously been an Assembly Member.
In the last leadership election, Suzy Davies, runner up to Paul Davies, finished eighth in her party’s list primary in South Wales West. She faces a ferocious constituency contest in Bridgend.
That does not leave a vast pool from which to draw a leader: Russell George, Janet Finch-Saunders, Mark Isherwood and the elephant in every room, former leader Andrew RT Davies.
Andrew RT Davies failed to command the backing of the Senedd group and left in a huff. The composition of the Senedd group has not much changed since then. However, Andrew RT Davies’ former Chief of Staff and devoted Senedd abolitionist Chris Thorne is head of campaigns for the Conservatives in Wales. It’s a combination that may play well with the faithful but repel the voters and the Senedd group.
The lack of an obvious alternative could play to Paul Davies’ advantage. Besides, any new leader’s appointment would, necessarily, be interim. If the Senedd election goes badly, they become a footnote. If it goes well, they might still be picked off in a subsequent poll of party members favouring another candidate more appealing to them.
Such an approach went well with Jeremy Corbyn.
And, of course, the Senedd election could be delayed, leaving any interim leader in limbo as party members whinge at not having had a say in electing them.
Whatever – or whoever – happens next, the Conservatives will need good luck and a following wind to cling onto their current relative strength in Wales’ opinion polls.
Elin Jones backs calls for business rates holiday extension for independent businesses
CEREDIGION’S Member of the Senedd, Elin Jones, has backed calls by the British Independent Retail Association for the extension of the current rates holiday for non-essential businesses in 2021/22.
Many local independent businesses have been closed for the best part of a year, and many will be in a more precarious situation now than when the initial rates holiday was announced last year. Many businesses will be looking forward to the easing of restrictions over the next few months, but Elin Jones warned that many would benefit from the continued business rates holiday.
Elin Jones said:
“Every effort must be made to secure the future of independent businesses in Ceredigion. They are such an important feature of life in Ceredigion, both as employers, and as a draw for people to our towns and villages.
“Normal trading will eventually resume, and these businesses will be able to flourish again, but local businesses owners know that this cannot be rushed. Therefore we must continue to sustain our businesses until they are once again back on an even keel.
“It will take a while for footfall to resume, and extending the business rates holiday is one way to help in this time of need.”
MP makes Budget case for support for self-employed and small businesses in Ceredigion
BEN LAKE MP has called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the government’s financial support package for businesses and self-employed workers in next week’s Budget as many struggle to stay afloat during continued lockdown restrictions.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak is to set out the UK Government’s budget on Wednesday 3 March, almost a year since the last Budget on 11 March 2020.
To help businesses and our local high streets over coming months, the Ceredigion MP has called on the Chancellor to extend the lowered rate of VAT at 5% for hospitality and tourism for a year to March 2022 and to extend the business rates relief package.
Mr Lake also called on the Chancellor to retain the furlough scheme for the duration of pandemic restrictions, as recent figures show more than 178,000* in Wales are still receiving government help from the CJRS. He also urged the Chancellor to expand the existing eligibility criteria for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme in order to offer some help to the many individuals who have not received a penny in Government support thus far.
Ben Lake MP said: “For many businesses and self-employed workers, the financial support government has offered over the last 12 months has been a lifeline. Now, as we are finally starting to see light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, we cannot remove this lifeline prematurely. Extending this help for a little longer, and expanding the criteria to help those that have been excluded thus far, would offer small businesses the support they require to ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic.”
Many businesses who are still not open due to lockdown measures are also now expected to start repaying their Bounce Back Loans. This is despite their situation largely remaining unchanged since they took out the loan, or in some unfortunate instances, worsened as they have not yet been able to trade.
UKHospitality has estimated that the hospitality sector lost around £72 billion in sales in 2020 and faces, frankly, a debt mountain, including £4.2 billion in state-backed loans.
Mr Lake said: “It is important that businesses that took out bounce back loans and CBILS are required to pay only when they are in a position to do so – once they have ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic. Affording such a level of flexibility, and thus preventing avoidable business failures, would protect jobs, the taxpayer’s investment in the recovery, and the integrity of our financial system.
“We remain in the early stages of a vaccine-led recovery, and it is likely that we will have some form of restrictions for many months to come. Having done so much to protect the economy and the workforce, we must not withdraw support prematurely, as to do so would risk throwing away the investment taxpayers have made in the last year, and potentially our economic recovery.”
Covid-19 vaccination venues and timeline announced for everyone locally over 50
EVERY person in JCVI priority groups 5 to 9 will be offered a COVID-19 vaccination by 18 April, Hywel Dda University Health Board has confirmed.
While the health board’s vaccination programme has the capacity to offer a vaccine to everyone in groups 5 to 9 by the original target date of 4 April, the delivery plan has had to be adjusted based on confirmed vaccine deliveries.
Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Pembrokeshire residents in priority groups 5 to 9 can expect to receive their vaccine as follows:
- Group 5, people aged 65 – 69 years – delivered by GP practices between 15 February and 12 March
- Group 6, people aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions and unpaid carers – delivered by GP practices between 22 February and 4 April
- Group 7, people aged 60 – 64 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 8 March
- Group 8, people aged 55 – 59 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 22 March
- Group 9, people aged 50 – 54 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 5 April
The health board currently has mass vaccination centres located in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Haverfordwest, Tenby, Carmarthen and Llanelli.
Group 6 is significantly the largest cohort to be vaccinated to date and we understand that many in this group will be anxious to receive a vaccine. Please do not contact your GP or the health board to ask about your appointment, you will be contacted directly when it is your turn and we thank you for your patience.
People in groups 7, 8 and 9 will receive a letter with an appointment date and time. Please arrive as close to your appointment time as possible. The letter will include a phone number to contact the health board should you need to rearrange or cancel your appointment but please make every effort to keep your allocated appointment time.
Steve Moore, Chief Executive of Hywel Dda UHB, said: “While our programme has had to slow due to supplies, we want to reassure everyone in groups 5 to 9 that our amazing teams of vaccinators and GP practices have the capability and flexibility to deliver our vaccine supplies as they arrive into the region.
“Vaccine supplies will start to increase again from mid-March, and we are confident that everyone living in our three counties in the top 9 priority groups will be offered a vaccine by mid-April.
“In Hywel Dda we have an older population compared to some other health boards and so over 50% of our adult population will have been offered a vaccine by milestone 2.
“To be able to say that as we approach the anniversary of the first national lockdown is nothing short of extraordinary.
“And again, I must say thank you to everyone living in our three counties who continue to come forward in substantial numbers for the vaccine. Uptake remains remarkably high and we hope to see this continue through groups 5 to 9 and into group 10.”
People are asked, wherever possible, to use their own private transport to attend an appointment. Lifts can be accepted from someone in their household or support bubble, but not from anyone else due to the risk of transmission of the virus.
The health board has put in place transport support for anyone who may have difficulty attending their vaccination appointment. If you have no other means of travel, please contact the health board on 0300 303 8322 and we will be happy to assist.
Everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 should have received an offer of a vaccination. If you have not been contacted, or have changed your mind, please contact your GP at the earliest opportunity. No one will be left behind.
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