Mark Drakeford – the anti-Boris Johnson who surprised us all

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There is a strong argument that the British politician whose reputation has been most enhanced by the challenges of the past 18 months is Mark Drakeford.

Despite having played a prominent role in devolved Welsh politics for almost two decades before that, at the time of his elevation to the role of Welsh Labour leader and first minister in December 2018, this unassuming west Walian remained largely unknown to the public. Even a year later, the low profile accorded to him in his party’s 2019 general election campaign suggests he was not regarded as an electoral asset.

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Given that this election saw Labour lose a swath of seats in Wales, it is hardly surprising there was a widespread perception at the time that the next devolved election was likely to prove particularly tough for the country’s long-dominant political force. Whatever his other qualities, Drakeford was not a charismatic leader in the mould of his immediate predecessors, Carwyn Jones and Rhodri Morgan.

Since then, however, Covid has changed everything. While Drakeford’s detail-oriented, carefully considered approach to policy may not excite, it turns out that, when the going got tough, this was exactly what most of the Welsh electorate wanted from their political leader. As a result, the Welsh first minister – in so many ways the anti-Boris Johnson – has become something of a cult figure. Even hard-nosed colleagues speak in tones of genuine wonder at the warmth of the reception he is now afforded. Indeed, apart from the anti-devolutionists and anti-vaxxers, it is striking how few in Wales seem to perceive him negatively.

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Unsurprisingly, May’s Senedd election campaign saw Welsh Labour making the most of Drakeford’s popularity and increased profile. The reward was yet another emphatic victory. Both Plaid Cymru and a generously resourced and initially very confident Welsh Conservative campaign were humbled – the latter in large part because of the way that leave-voting former Labour supporters were persuaded to return “home”.

Given that the wider Labour party is currently so short on success stories and, in particular, is failing to attract back leave voters, it may seem surprising that it continues to make so little of Drakeford. No doubt it is in part a reflection of a general lack of interest in, or knowledge of, Wales: Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley once reported that, in Blair’s Downing Street, Wales was regarded as “Scotland’s smaller, uglier sister”. Even with Scottish Labour now a wan shadow of its former self, this prioritisation still holds true.

Neither does Drakeford fit comfortably into the dominant narratives on either side of Labour’s right-left schism. The first minister is avowedly on the left: not only did he vote for and support Jeremy Corbyn, but he also always votes left in the party’s internal elections. He is even – horror of horrors – an avowed republican. Yet Drakeford is also both an election winner and a highly competent wielder of executive power. No wonder the right-leaning Labour leadership don’t seem to know what to make of him.

But then, neither does the left. Not least because Drakeford is the quintessential pragmatic politician, who tends to eschew the grand symbolic gesture and focuses on what he regards as achievable progress, accepting all the messy compromises this entails. As perhaps befits a former professor of social policy, here is also a politician whose focus is almost exclusively on domestic politics. A Corbynite, perhaps, but Drakeford is clearly very different.

Then again, perhaps the first minister is just too Welsh for the British party at large. Since its humiliation at the hands of the Plaid Cymru in the first devolved election in 1999, Welsh Labour’s “special sauce” has been its willingness to campaign from a soft nationalist position. The party very deliberately emphasises its Welsh identity, argues that “Welsh values” and “Labour values” are effectively synonymous, and claims only Labour can be relied upon to stand up for Wales.

Since the 2016 referendum, this positioning has taken on a harder edge. With successive Tory administrations having adopted an approach to Brexit that entails significant recentralisation of power in Whitehall, the Welsh Labour government has been increasingly arguing that the UK is in urgent need of fundamental reform. This includes overthrowing traditional notions of parliamentary sovereignty and accepting the right of the UK’s four component territories to choose their own futures. While Keir Starmer might talk the talk on “radical federalism”, it’s far from clear that he would be comfortable walking the walk.

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But for Drakeford, this is again as much a matter of pragmatism as it is of principle. Without such reform, he believes, the union will simply not survive. Polls consistently suggest that up to a half of Welsh Labour’s support are now at least “indy curious”, serving as a reminder of how far the tectonic plates have already shifted.

In just a few weeks, Drakeford will celebrate his 67th birthday. He’s already made it clear he will step down as first minister during the current Senedd term, in time for his successor to find their feet before the next devolved election. It is a fair bet that, temperamentally, he would prefer to spend his remaining time in office ensuring that Wales recovers from the pandemic and nudging public policy in more progressive directions.

But questions about the future of the UK after Brexit, compounded by the perversely self-defeating “muscular unionism” of the Johnson government, mean that constitutional questions will inevitably dominate. It remains to be seen how effective the quiet, cerebral approach that has stood Mark Drakeford in good stead over the past 18 months will prove to be in this very different context. But we should now know not to underestimate him.

  • Richard Wyn Jones is director of the Wales Governance Centre and dean of public affairs at Cardiff University

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