Reputation is a complex thing.
It can’t always be decisively managed or measured, particularly in politics, and the public’s perception of character and capability can shift dramatically due to the level of scrutiny that prevails in the current media climate.
When he became First Minister around eighteen months ago, Mark Drakeford’s reputation did not play to the usual expectations on Welsh Labour leaders either. He didin’t have the charisma of Carwyn Jones or Rhodri Morgan, and to his credit he never tried to pretend that he was the kind of larger than life leader he was not. Drakeford even admitted that climbing to the top of Welsh politics was not an ambition he had always craved.
This somewhat unassuming former social policy professor, whose pride in his allotment remains one of his most interesting qualities, was therefore largely unheard of among the Welsh public when he was elected Carwyn Jones’ successor. Compare him to Boris Johnson: a man whose primary selling point as a leader is his public appeal. The one consistency across the many characters the Prime Minister has played over the decades, from liberal London Mayor to Brexiteer Prime Minister, has been his constant attempt to ensure that he would be popular and draw all the attention.
By contrast, it has become the norm that poll after poll would show ‘Don’t Know’ next to a response on the public’s view of the First Minister. This is by no means unique to Mark Drakeford; but it is clear that his first 18 months in the job have gone largely unnoticed, and when the public were aware of him they did not like him very much. In the meantime, his obscurity was largely guaranteed by the relentless media focus on events in Westminster – first Brexit and then the build-up to the 2019 General Election and its aftermath.
So, once this pandemic struck the UK, it seemed clear how things would play out: this would be Boris Johnson’s moment – his own personal World War 2 against an enemy that threatened the future of the nation. The successful finale to his Churchillian myth was all but guaranteed.
When the history books were written, Drakeford would be at best a footnote – that ‘Welsh chap’ if mentioned at all.
But nothing is certain in politics. As Johnson’s ever-weakening position has demonstrated.
What has actually transpired is that, for the first time since Rhodri Morgan’s ‘clear red water’ speech, the Welsh government has over recent weeks sought to mark a clear dividing line in the public’s perceptions between Cardiff and London. Government ministers have also taken to social media to directly address inaccurate news reports across international media. Most surprisingly of all our mild-mannered First Minister has not pulled his punches when criticising the policies implemented by the UK government, while all the while insisting that Wales is still committed to the so-called ‘four-nation’ approach.
These actions have, of course, been necessary to clarify the different policies of the UK’s devolved governments compared to the approach adopted by Downing Street. But surprisingly, the First Minister’s calm and authoritative public positioning – in both articulating lockdown restrictions and the priorities of the Welsh government – has transformed the perception of him and the strength of Welsh politics.
As Professor Roger Awan-Scully has already articulated, the most recent Welsh Political Barometer demonstrates the profound impact this has had on public perceptions of politics in Wales. Support for the Conservatives has collapsed 11%, while the First Minister has taken the Prime Minister’s place as the most popular politician in Wales.
This striking transformation of Mark Drakeford illustrates the complexity of how reputations are built and destroyed, especially during times of crisis. His relative popularity highlights that the public do not always need a charismatic and outlandish leader.
In fact, the First Minister has operated so effectively during the pandemic because he is the opposite: the conditions have been ripe for a calm and academic voice in contrast with the hysteria that has plagued the discourse at national press briefings.
The changing perceptions of Mark Drakeford not only have implications for him, but also for the future of the country that he leads.
People across the political spectrum – including Welsh nationalists – have warmed to Drakeford over recent weeks. Adam Price’s popularity seems to be stuck in the sand because of it. The lack of exposure he has received recently is most likely to blame – he is quite literally stuck at home and unable to play to his strengths as a debater and orator. Drakeford has also parked his tanks on Plaid Cymru’s lawn and shown that Welsh Labour can successfully deploy soft nationalism to its advantage when it wants to.
It is likely that this means – despite the increasingly unpredictable nature of Welsh politics – that the coronavirus crisis has made it more likely than before that Mark Drakeford will be our First Minister after next year’s Senedd elections. This would certainly be an enormous blow to Plaid Cymru but also to the Conservatives – who have fought long and hard to win Red Wall seats and bask in the idealism of their so-called Disraelian ‘One Nation’ conservatism.
However, there is a political danger to Welsh Labour longer term in the path that Mark Drakeford has taken. The poll findings also showed a significant increase in those who now support independence, to its highest ever, with a quarter of those surveyed by YouGov stating that they would vote ‘Yes’ if a referendum was held tomorrow. If this increase in support had been predicted only a few months ago, I am sure many in Plaid Cymru and other campaigners wouldn’t have believed it.
We know what Drakeford thinks of independence. But by demonstrating that the Welsh Government can act independently of what some perceive to be as a shambolic UK Government, and ensure greater success by doing so, Drakeford may have inadvertently set Welsh politics on a different path. And as Scotland has shown, a recalibration of politics around questions of independence may not have a happy ending for the Labour party.
In the run up to 2021 Senedd election, Adam Price may be able to exploit the feeling that London has failed Wales during the pandemic, and that a Labour government may not be the best way to build a stronger, more effective Senedd that is needed in the lengthy recession ahead.
Above all, this crisis has shown that the volatility of Welsh politics, long-brewing under the surface since devolution, has now come to the forefront of people’s minds. Our First Minister – a man no different to who he was before coronavirus – has always insisted Welsh independence is not the answer to our problems. Despite a transformation of his political reputation, a growing number of his electorate seem to disagree with him on independence – and, for that, he can only thank himself.