When Mark Drakeford became First Minister of Wales on 12 December 2018, he promised to stay in position for five years. He kept his word: yesterday Drakeford announced his resignation. A Welsh Labour leadership contest to replace him is expected to commence from January. The precise timings will be decided this week. Candidates will need the support of Senedd members (or fewer members and the support of local parties and affiliations), before a vote among Labour’s 18,000 Welsh members.
Drakeford represents a different strand of politics to Keir Starmer. He supported Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and is at ease introducing policies with dubious popularity. There has been some disquiet in the national party over the backlash to Drakeford’s 20mph speed limit on urban roads around Wales. As Ben wrote recently, the surge in Drakeford’s unpopularity between August and October correlates with the introduction of that policy. Nearly 60 per cent of people opposed it, according to Redfield and Wilton.
The memory of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in the Uxbridge by-election defeat will be on Labour strategists’ minds when surveying the pros and cons of Drakeford’s departure. But it’s worth noting that upset over Ulez has subsided since its introduction, as people have become accustomed to it. Opposition to the speed limits may similarly disappear in Wales, but the party top brass isn’t in the mood to take any chances. Yesterday, Labour’s man in Manchester Andy Burnham scrapped plans for a clean-air zone, saying: “The way to do this was not to push people into hardship, to threaten people’s businesses and livelihoods.”
These words will elicit a reluctant nod of approval in the leader’s office. Batten down the hatches and scrape off the barnacles are the mantras. To put it mildly, a debate in Wales over 20mph speed limits will not be top of Labour’s list of ploys to win a majority. This is why we can expect Starmer’s team to take a close interest in the forthcoming leadership contest to succeed Drakeford. As the blocking of Jamie Driscoll to stand as north-east mayor and the leader’s cold relationship with Burnham suggest, some senior Labour figures would rather stop those with different views from the leadership securing positions of power beyond the grip of the Westminster machine.
They might find Drakeford’s successor more palatable. The two front-runners are Vaughan Gething, the economy minister who came second to Drakeford in the 2018 leadership race, and the education minister, Jeremy Miles, a former member of the Blairite group Progress. Both men supported Starmer for the leadership in 2020. In any case, those in Westminster will want to reduce the chance of friction between a Labour government in London and one in Cardiff. Drakeford’s successor will be key to that relationship.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.
[See also: When will Tory centrists stand up to the right?]