RHODRI MORGAN last night astonished his political opponents by claiming he was only given a briefing on the contents of the damning National Audit Office report yesterday.
In response to questions from the Western Mail, the First Minister also claimed that the report had no bearing on his decision to remove Jane Hutt as Health Minister.
Mr Morgan's spokesperson told us last night that the Assembly Government had received a copy of the report only on Wednesday. Yet the Western Mail and other media outlets received copies under embargo on Tuesday.
Mr Morgan's claim that he was unaware of the report's findings until yesterday also seemed strange in the light of a statement made by Assistant Auditor-General Gillian Body at a press briefing yesterday. Ms Body said Assembly Government officials were given a draft of the report "three to four months ago".
Also, NHS Wales director Ann Lloyd told the Welsh NHS Confederation conference at Llandudno last November that the service faced a tough January with the publication of the report.
Plaid Cymru's Shadow Health Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas said last night, "I find it very difficult to believe that Rhodri Morgan has only been briefed about the report today. People have been aware that this report was on the way for a long time and it is inconceivable that the First Minister had no idea it would be very critical.
"I am also extremely sceptical about Rhodri Morgan's claim that Brian Gibbons was his first choice as Health Minister and that he had been planning to move Jane Hutt since the election in May 2003. If that is so, why did he shift Brian Gibbons from being Deputy Health Minister to Deputy Economic Development Minister at that time? The effect of doing so is that Brian Gibbons has spent more than 18 months off the health committee and is now having to catch up fast. If Rhodri Morgan had always intended giving the job to Brian Gibbons, he would surely have kept him on as Deputy Health Minister for the sake of continuity.
"I am convinced that the sacking of Jane Hutt was not a pre-planned move. It was a panic measure."
Welsh Conservative health spokesman Jonathan Morgan said, "I think the First Minister's response is a lot of nonsense. I have never heard such a blatant attempt to avoid facing up to the obvious as this pathetic statement from Rhodri Morgan that he has only just found out about the report's findings.
"If he hadn't sacked Jane Hutt on Monday, he would have to have sacked her with the publication of the report on Friday - and it would have been difficult for him to have justified giving her another job in the Cabinet.
"It defies credibility that he would not have been told of the report's contents by Assembly Government officials. The significance of the findings is obvious to anyone and the First Minister would have to be informed.
"The staff of the National Audit Office working on the report had to rely heavily on statistical information provided by officials of the Assembly Government and there would have been close co-operation between the two bodies throughout the investigation process.
"At best the Assembly Government are hiding behind a desperate attempt to spin themselves away from the obvious truth and at worst they are lying."