Drakeford’s final act: budget warfare and the search for a successor
Mark Drakeford, Wales’ First Minister for five years, has announced he will not continue past the next Welsh Parliament election in 2027.
His time in office has been rocky to say the least.
It was not an easy road. Guiding Wales through the Coronavirus Pandemic and, along with his Health Minister Vaughan Gething, coming under intense pressure as the country went through numerous lockdowns.
Both now face an intensive COVID enquiry together.
In fact the tragedy for many Labour Party members is Drakeford is unable to continue. He is popular among the membership, being seen to be an astute Labour voice for Wales under successive Conservative administrations in Westminster. Arguing terrier-like for more funding from HM Treasury as decade long attempts have been made to trim Whitehall expenditure.
Just this week, Drakeford made the announcement of a devastating £900m shortfall in the Welsh budget further emphasising his ongoing struggle with Westminster. Earlier this year, protesting that if Wales’ budget had kept pace with the growth in the economy since 2010-11, it would be £3.5bn (or 15%) higher by next fiscal year.
Will wielding the axe of public spending cuts now in fact be Drakeford’s last act as leader of the nation? And what will his successor do to remedy the situation?
Drakeford’s relentless pursuit of a better financial situation for Wales has set the stage for the priorities of his successor. And with his announcement, the political arena is opening to potential candidates stepping forward.
The competition for First Minister is tough. Labour have held power in Cardiff Bay since the Welsh Assembly (now Parliament) was first formed in 1999. Tenured ministers are available aplenty.
Likely candidates at this stage include a triumvirate of experienced candidates, two of which are former contenders for the leadership. Health Minister, now Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething, current Health Minister Eluned Morgan, also a former contender for First Minister, with the final, new challenger, Education Minister, Jeremy Miles.
All three have been touring constituency Labour Party meetings – potential voters – for some time.
Intrigue still surrounds Rebecca Evans, the Finance Minister, who has also been seen moving into position for the leadership, though arrives with lower name recognition but equally tenured experience in office.
While individual contenders will seek to garner attention, it’s essential to remember that the race for First Minister in the Senedd is distinctly different from the high-stakes political battles in Westminster.
Indeed, speculating on leadership contenders is much less of a pastime here in Wales.
Yet, beyond the quiet speculation and the political manoeuvrings, the looming shadow of financial challenges awaits the successor of Drakeford.
It is, after all, difficult to be a distinct political, regional force without the funds.
The Welsh Government has spent the best part of two decades arguing the despised Barnett funding formula model is out of date, with Welsh per-head spending (£10,656) now tailing that of Scotland (£11,247) and Northern Ireland (£11,590).
Equally the Conservative Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has effectively frozen the Welsh Government block grant, gradually eroding devolved finances thanks to the rising tide of inflation. There is thirdly the matter of High Speed 2, which under funding rules, should result in Wales receiving a proportionate amount of funds to spend on infrastructure.
The question is which candidates for First Minister can ensure this funding shortfall is repaired so they can govern effectively?
Leading Wales comes with the intricate task of managing party dynamics, especially within the Welsh Labour Party.
Contenders still have to face the party membership, with staunchly left wing rank-and-file members to please. Without the aforementioned funding situation remedied, the new First Minister will run the risk of leaving unhappy activists in their wake. Activists who have the power to create real headaches through the party’s ornate democratic structures.
Though to become First Minister there really is only one open flank available to make a mark in the contest. For purposes of political expediency, obtaining public money will have to come second. For now, red meat policy promises to the party faithful will be the order of the day.
The final conundrum is will the new First Minister be able to create their own distinct place in the United Kingdom or will they be plagued by the same limitations that held former First Minister, Mark Drakeford back from achieving all he hoped when first elected on his path?
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.