Will Mark Drakeford become the first politician in the history of devolution to be destroyed by success? A new poll finds that Welsh voters are more likely to believe that their government has handled the pandemic well than either voters in England or Scotland. Yet that belief is not translating itself into greater levels of support for the Welsh Labour Party at the Senedd Cymru but for Plaid Cymru, with another poll putting Welsh Labour on course for their worst-ever performance at the Senedd, and with Drakeford himself projected to lose his seat according to the Welsh Governance Centre’s Roger Awan-Scully.
The Welsh Labour Party appears to be facing a nightmarish political cocktail: the credit for the vaccine roll-out at a UK-wide level is accruing to their Conservative opponents, while the belief that the Welsh government (a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats) has handled the crisis well is translating into support not for the Welsh Labour Party or the Welsh Liberal Democrats, but for Plaid Cymru.
In a sense, it is a validation of the big strategic argument that Adam Price, Plaid Cymru’s leader, has long made to his MPs and his allies: that the party’s biggest problem is not Welsh Labour’s success but its failures, and that as long as the perception persists that Wales cannot govern itself well then his party will struggle to make a breakthrough. That the polls now show his party on course for what would be its biggest set of gains while most Welsh voters perceive the country to well-governed would seem to endorse that thesis.
That presents a surprising challenge for Plaid Cymru too. The leader of the second-placed Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, has ruled out deals with Plaid Cymru, ripping up close to three decades of Welsh Conservative strategy. It may be that if after the election there is a genuine prospect of removing Labour from office in Cardiff, he goes back on that approach. But I think it would be hard, both within the Conservative parliamentary group in the Senedd and the wider Conservative family, for the Welsh Conservatives to do any sort of deal with Plaid Cymru (even one analogous to that in 2016, when they voted for Plaid Cymru’s then-leader, Leanne Wood, to be first minister), given the existential struggle the party is currently in with the SNP over Scottish independence.
Which means the only viable option for a government, not just on these polls but in essentially every poll under Drakeford’s leadership, is a resumption of the One Wales government, in which Labour and Plaid Cymru governed together: an approach that worked much better politically for the Welsh Labour Party than for Plaid Cymru, who could point to a series of achievements in coalition but received little in the way of electoral benefit to them.
That the Welsh Labour government currently faces the bizarre political situation where most voters think they have done a good job managing the pandemic, most voters think Drakeford’s decision-making has been pretty good, yet Drakeford could well lose his job and his parliamentary seat. This could indicate that the political benefits of a Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition have now reversed: that it is Labour with more to fear from a successful coalition government.
And that’s possibly going to be the biggest question in Welsh politics for the next four years: which of Welsh Labour or Plaid Cymru have more to fear from a successful coalition with one another?
[See also: How much has Brexit cost the UK?]