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Mark Drakeford: Welsh leader through Brexit, Covid and multiple prime ministers

13 Dec 2023 4 minute read
Mark Drakeford at the Eisteddfod

Mark Drakeford, who is stepping down as Welsh First Minister after five years, leaves after a period dominated by the turbulence of Brexit, the pandemic and multiple Tory prime ministers.

Like other leaders of the devolved administrations, the 69-year-old Welsh leader had his fair share of clashes with politicians in London during his tenure. His exit had long been flagged, with Mr Drakeford previously confirming that he would stand down as First Minister in 2024.

The long-serving politician was first elected to the Senedd in 2011 as the Member for Cardiff West, serving in various ministerial roles from 2013 under the leadership of Carwyn Jones, before succeeding him as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader in 2018.

Born and raised in west Wales, he has lived in the Pontcanna area of Cardiff for more than 30 years.

Probation officer

Before entering politics he worked as a probation officer before becoming a lecturer at Swansea University and then Cardiff University, where he became professor of social policy and applied social sciences.

His first move into government came as a special adviser to former first minister Rhodri Morgan, and he wrote Mr Morgan’s “clear red water” speech which promoted the differences between Labour in Wales and New Labour in London under Tony Blair.

Seen as on the left of Labour, when he became leader in 2018 he promised to govern “in the radical socialist tradition of Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot”.

The only member of the Welsh government cabinet to vote for Jeremy Corbyn during his first national leadership bid in 2015, in office Mr Drakeford largely maintained the party’s enduring dominance of Welsh politics – leading the party to a strong performance in the 2021 Senedd elections.

Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic was seen as boosting the prominence of Mr Drakeford, whose televised appearances throughout the crisis to share details of Wales-specific public health measures were credited with widening public awareness of the role of the Welsh Parliament and Government.

But he also faced criticism from Welsh businesses for his cautious easing of restrictions compared with elsewhere in the UK, and was forced to defend comments that Wales’s vaccine rollout was “not a sprint” as the country initially lagged behind the rest of the UK.

During the pandemic, Mr Drakeford opposed growing support for Welsh independence, instead arguing for “an entrenched form of devolution” incapable of being “rolled back” or “interfered with”.

He has also claimed that the United Kingdom “is over” and a new union is required reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”.

Mr Drakeford suffered a personal blow at the start of the year, when his wife, Clare, died suddenly.

Speaking in August about his intention to leave the Welsh Parliament at the next election, Mr Drakeford signalled his plan to remain involved in politics even if it meant leaving the frontline.

“I think of it like Tony Benn – when he decided to leave the House of Commons, he said, ‘I’m going to stop being an MP in order to spend more time in politics’.

“I’m not going to be a Member of the Senedd after 2026 but I am not going to step back from the debate or stop thinking about Wales’ future.”

Disagreements 

Mr Drakeford, like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, had repeated disagreements with the UK Government as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic dominated his tenure.

But one of the fiercest clashes of recent months involved the decision to drop the default speed limit from 30mph to 20mph in built-up areas.

The move prompted a backlash and brickbats from Conservatives and campaigners, but Mr Drakeford was a staunch defender of the move.

“This is a measure that will save lives and that is the basis on which we will continue to defend a measure,” he insisted earlier this year.


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