Mark Drakeford has been First Minister of Wales, and leader of the Welsh Labour party, for approximately 18 months now. It is fair to say that this period has not been a very successful one for Wales’s long-dominant party. Those 18 months have seen the worst-ever poll rating for Labour in Wales. In last year’s European election, the party came third in a Wales-wide contest for the first time in any election since before World War I, and for the first time ever finished behind Plaid Cymru.
Then in December’s general election, although Labour came first in Wales again (for the 27th general election in a row), they lost considerable ground to Conservatives – who equalled the number of Welsh seats they had won in the 1983 Thatcher landslide, and got their best vote share in Wales since 1910.
Of course, much of Labour’s travails, in Wales as across the rest of Britain, could be blamed on the twin problems of Corbyn and Brexit. But the party’s Welsh leader was also implicated. Mark Drakeford had followed in wake of two successive Welsh Labour leaders, Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, who were both popular and effective campaigners. Drakeford undoubtedly has many strengths: even his political opponents concede his intellect and mastery of policy detail. But he has seemed uncomfortable with the public side of political leadership.
In the 2018 Welsh Labour leadership campaign, Drakeford appeared a reluctant leader, and since assuming the role has often continued to look uncomfortable with the “retail” side of political leadership. Sometimes he was not even present: in Welsh TV debates during the 2017 general election campaign, Labour’s case had been (very effectively) represented by Carwyn Jones; in 2019, Drakeford was not seen in such events, with Labour represented by Shadow Cabinet members Nick Thomas-Symonds and Nia Griffith.
The Welsh public were left distinctly underwhelmed. With most people in Wales primarily receiving news from sources edited in London, devolved-level politicians have to work hard to cut through to those outside the Cardiff Bay bubble. Throughout Drakeford’s first year in office, Welsh polls asking about him consistently found large percentages of people — sometimes even a majority — simply choosing the Don’t Know option. Yet even those who did have a view were often unimpressed; the First Minister has consistently trailed Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price in ratings, for example.
When the Covid-19 crisis started, a “rally to the flag” effect saw a significant boost to government popularity ratings in many countries. But whereas in Scotland, with Scottish government being led by the commanding figure of Nicola Sturgeon, this effect appeared primarily to work to the benefit of the SNP, in Wales it was the union flag and the Conservative government to whom people rallied. April’s Welsh Political Barometer poll saw Conservative support in Wales at an all-time high.
Other questions in the poll, about the popularity of leaders and about how governments were handling the crisis, all saw Conservative politicians, and the UK government, much more highly-rated than their Welsh Labour counterparts.
But a lot has changed in the last two months. The initial rally to the flag impetus has faded in most countries, while any personal sympathy for the Prime Minister after his own Covid-19 hospitalisation has also dissipated. Boris Johnson’s occasional public appearances have hardly suggested a leader who is rising to the magnitude of events, or remotely on top of the issue, while the actions of his closest advisor Dominic Cummings have provoked widespread fury.
The regular public appearances of the Welsh First Minister, however, have offered a stark contrast. Drakeford’s press conferences radiate a calm competence and mastery of the technical detail. And for the first time since he assumed leadership, his media appearances have evinced confidence – with even the occasional sharp put-down towards critics.
Meanwhile, a distinct, and somewhat more cautious Welsh policy approach to easing restrictions has gradually developed and been articulated. And while the handling of Covid-19 in Wales has hardly been flawless, the available statistics thus far suggest that the excess deaths toll in Wales is well towards the lower end of those seen across the nations and regions of the UK.
The new Welsh Political Barometer poll shows these events having an impact on public attitudes. Public approval of Prime Minister Johnson and the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has collapsed, bringing a significant hit to the Tories’ support levels as well. The Welsh public strongly prefer – by a margin of more than four to one – the Welsh government’s more cautious approach to easing lockdown, and increasingly appear to place greater trust in the Welsh government and Welsh ministers, rather than their UK counterparts, to handle the crisis.
And there has been a step-change in public evaluations of the Welsh First Minister. Far more people now have a view about him, and those views have become much more positive: on a 0-10 popularity scale, while Boris Johnson has fallen from an average rating of 5.3 to 4.1 since April, Drakeford has moved in the opposite direction, climbing from an average rating of only 4.0 in April to 5.1 now. For the first time in his tenure as Welsh Labour leader, Drakeford is starting to look like an electoral asset for his party rather than a liability.
The man has not changed. Drakeford is fundamentally the same person, with the same strengths and weaknesses, as before. He remains intelligent, courteous, and with a manner (as well as dress sense) suggestive of the professor he once was. But the times have changed – and perhaps the man has met the moment. In these serious times, a growing proportion of people in Wales appear to be glad that the Welsh government is led by a serious man.