It is 300 years since Sir Robert Walpole became the first recognisable Prime Minister of this country. You would think an anniversary to celebrate or champion as part of Britain’s tentative first steps to becoming a representative democracy, but not in Wales. The tercentenary is passing in a slumbrous manner with little significance. Perhaps because there is no period in those three centuries that the First Lord of the Treasury is so frowned upon and considered so distant by the electorate in this western corner of Britain.
More fundamentally, Sir Anthony Seldon asks in his book, The Impossible Office? 300 years of the British Prime Minister, whether being Prime Minister is just that: impossible. The experience of dozens of premiers suggests so and there is no doubt that it is now.
The ever-evolving constitutional crisis has a part to play in the struggle faced by the current incumbent. Devolution has changed the focal points of British governance and has made the Prime Minister not only the figurehead for leading the country but trying to keep it in one piece, as the paranoic decision to create a ‘Minister for the Union’ shows. If Boris Johnson’s downfall comes — believe it or not, it eventually will — it may not be because of Cash for Curtains but the break-up of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, for all of his charismatic showmanship, is in danger above all else of becoming a victim of poor timing: something that has engulfed several of his fifty-four predecessors.
Whether leaders have come to power too early or too late — or have been overcome by events that they were ill-equipped personally or politically to manage — is a theme that runs through the story of the British premiership. There is widespread agreement that the Prime Minister is not best placed to bring the four nations together, or indeed lead England through a pandemic, and it has caught up with him.
And while it is also impossible to compare the Office of the First Minister of Wales to the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, timing is key in politics, no matter the office. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as the saying goes.
Back in November 2018, Mark Drakeford did not look like that man for Wales either. “I’ve no burning desire to be First Minister”, he told reporters during the leadership race. “I just think I’m best-equipped for the job.” Such an admission was condemned by commentators and opponents alike. Even by members of the Welsh Labour party. Taken at face value, it exposed how Labour had come to take Wales and its highest office for granted.
Indeed that is a dangerous attitude and can be a slippery slope (just ask party officials in Scotland) but in reality such remarks reflect what has made Mark Drakeford the most popular leader in Wales: authenticity. It is a quality that comes naturally to some politicians but it is rare here. For just over two decades of devolution we have had no characters like ‘Boris’. Instead we have been graced by personalities including Rhodri (Morgan) and Carwyn (Jones): leaders that kept the ancient Red Wall standing but failed to captivate the wider public.
Drakeford has been able to inject some life into Welsh politics and into the role of First Minister. Not entirely due to his sheer force of will or strength of personality alone, of course, but because of good timing.
It is a curious hypothesis to suggest there is no leader in modern Welsh politics who has been in the right place at the right time more than he. Even during the leadership race at the end of 2018, Drakeford was the favourite as soon as the starting gun was fired — hoovering up nominations from parliamentary colleagues and securing backing from Momentum, still in their heyday during the Corbyn era, to leave opponents playing catch-up. He was the perfect candidate at that exact moment; Corbyn still reigned supreme and Drakeford was aligned enough with him but enough of a disciple of Rhodri Morgan’s notion of being a ‘socialist of the Welsh stripe’ to be distinctive.
His first year-and-a-bit as leader came and went with little significance. I remember interviewing him barely six months into the job at Oxford, and half of the (mostly English) audience probably thinking they’d never see him again when he got back into his ministerial car at the end of the evening.
And then came the pandemic. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
They said that there was no person better qualified to lead America than Joe Biden, and the same applies to Mark Drakeford and navigating Wales through a pandemic. Of course, nothing can prepare you for a public health and economic crisis — although I challenge you to find another politician more suited to the situation than the social policy professor in the Bay. He has had a firm grasp of the evolving public health situation throughout the trials and tribulations of the last year, making those televised briefings look more like an academic lecture.
Don’t take my word for it either; look at the polls. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer found that 60 per cent of the public preferred Wales’s approach to England during the pandemic, while Mark Drakeford is the most popular leader in the country — comfortably ahead of Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, and opposition politicians in the Senedd. Outside of a pandemic, would Drakeford poll so highly? Of course not. Timing is everything; he is just what the public have needed over the last twelve months.
Let us also not forget that Drakeford has been comfortable in deploying Wales-only policy and deviating from England. (That’s clear red water for you). In a time when the full levers of power in Welsh Government needed to be used, was there another man or woman that knew the intricacies better than the seasoned special advisor and government minister? Beneath the veneer of that cheese-loving, allotment-tending man is a serious Cardiff Bay insider. And one who is comfortable being so.
Unlike many Prime Ministers who enter Downing Street prematurely or at the wrong time, Mark Drakeford’s greatest strength might be that he has come to power at the perfect moment. His professorial television briefings and measured manner has stood in stark contrast to the flamboyance of the Prime Minister, whose popularity in Wales is no longer what it used to be. In that vein the First Minister is lucky too: the mirror that has been held up to Westminster has reflected kindlier upon him than if another leader held the keys to Downing Street.
What better timing (again) for all this to come before an election. In the dying days of this campaign it will be personality more than policy that will decide the next First Minister of Wales. Mark Drakeford, once reluctant to strut his credentials and experience in front of the public, has now captured their imagination inavertedly. Compared to most politicians, he has had time on his side. And in that sense, the Welsh electorate may decide that he is indeed the best-equipped for the job, after all. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Theo Davies-Lewis is chief political commentator for The National Wales