THE Government's bid to merge the Welsh police forces descended further into farce yesterday when a Minister said the plan was off, only to backtrack minutes later.
In a plot more bizarre than a Keystone Kops film, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty told a question and answer session that the entire programme - which also affects English forces - was being scrapped, but later said he had misunderstood the question.
But the idea of forcing the four forces to join together is now an "absolute last resort", he admitted - effectively killing the merger off.
Tory leader David Cameron said the Government had been "wasting police time" while Plaid Cymru said Labour had misled the public.
As revealed in yesterday's Western Mail, the decision to step back from the merger came after protracted discussions between the Home Office and the Treasury over council tax.
Merged police forces would have to charge the same level of police precept - part of the council tax - meaning hikes in bills for many parts of Britain.
The Treasury had baulked at the idea of rises of more than 5%, which would contradict Government attempts to rein in runaway council tax rises.
At Prime Minister's Questions Tony Blair insisted the mergers' programme had not been binned.
He was mocked by Mr Cameron, who said, "Three weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister the identical question: I asked him would he abandon force mergers and he said 'No'.
"Can he tell us what has changed? Hasn't the Prime Minister been wasting police time?"
Mr Blair insisted, "They are not off the agenda.
"There will be areas where it is important for us, for example, to have far greater strategic co-operation across force lines, but also to merge where we can find the consent to do so."
Mr McNulty told an Association of Police Authorities conference in central London that he wanted a new emphasis on collaboration between forces.
He said in reply to a question from a police authority member, "Are the mergers going to go through in one way or another eventually? "I think the definitive answer to that is no."
Mr McNulty later said that he had misunderstood the question, and had believed he was being asked whether enforced mergers had been abandoned rather than the merger programme as a whole.
Ministers had insisted the mergers were necessary to help combat organised crime and drug trafficking, but despite support from senior officers the plan quickly fell apart amid accusations of bungling by Home Office officials.
The original timetable of an all-Wales force by April 2007 was dropped last month by Home Secretary John Reid, and, in the face of criticism from his predecessor Charles Clarke, the merger is now all but dead.
Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd said the Home Office had dealt with the merger in a "shambolic" way.
"They said that super police forces were a must to tackle terrorism, and second level organised crime," he said. "Are we now to believe that terrorism is no longer a threat, or were we misled from the beginning?"
His words were echoed by shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, who said it had been "the worst PR exercise in living memory between the Home Office and the police in Wales".
Ken Jones, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said, "Acpo believes that the original merger plan is no longer relevant.
"If voluntary mergers cannot, despite the best efforts of government and the leaders of the service, be facilitated, then we find it difficult to understand how more complex and costly mergers are still viable. Significant, and distracting, uncertainty now exists."