Last week was quite something, wasn’t it? Even the most seasoned observers of Welsh politics couldn’t have seen this coming: a Welsh Labour government implementing a hard Covid border. It sent both nationalists and unionists into a frenzy. “At last!”, cried Adam Price. It was more to do with being “anti-English than anti-Covid” according to Alun Cairns, the (anti) Welsh former secretary of state. All credit to the first minister. After all, not many politicians can cause so much division with a public health policy.
The rise of Mark Drakeford’s political influence and personal profile during the pandemic has already been well-documented. This seemingly unassuming and thoughtful former social policy professor has become the major catalyst for greater public appreciation of devolution. He’s not only a warm character who loves cheese but also a politician prepared to stand up to Westminster. Right now, Mark Drakeford is the most popular leader in Wales and also one of the most recognisable. Hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in to his Covid briefings.
These broadcasts have been essential viewing to find out about Wales’ latest government-imposed restrictions. Not only do the general public get their information from them, but it seems elected representatives do too. So the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru have finally found something they both can agree on: that the Welsh government has treated the Senedd with contempt during the pandemic by briefing the media ahead of parliament on coronavirus policies.
Time and time again the first minister has used his set-piece presidential-style address to speak to the people of Wales. And rightly so. This is how he can get his message out clearly and on his own terms to the general public, who need clear guidance and messaging. But there is a growing feeling that Welsh politicians are being side-lined, and the institution of the Senedd undermined in the process.
Why do the Welsh government feel that the Senedd has no place to consider and debate new laws? Or even to be informed of the rules in the first instance? These are some difficult questions that the Welsh government have faced this weekend.
Boris Johnson has also experienced stinging criticism from the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, over his rush to push legislation through the UK parliament. But at least he turns up to the green benches.
The first minister and his health secretary meanwhile have grown fond of Zoom. Ministers don’t even want to make the short trek from Cathays to Cardiff Bay to the Welsh parliament. And last week Vaughan Gething kept Senedd members waiting while he went off-camera for a while. Darren Millar could be heard muttering how disgraceful all this was. Indeed, this behaviour is nothing short of farcical.
The situation has been worsening over recent weeks. Although the Presiding officer, Elin Jones, previously said to the Senedd that she had been informed that final details of the restrictions are only decided just before the first minister makes his announcement, this is clearly not the case. Take the decision to curb the opening hours of pubs, cafes and restaurants in late September: news of the restrictions broke two hours before the first minister made his speech.
Yet it seems the Welsh government have outdone themselves this past weekend. The ever-probing political blogger Bubble Wales published a leaked letter on Saturday from the transport union CPT, which revealed that Wales would enter a circuit breaker lockdown this coming Friday. Thanks for the heads up.
Yet this was after Mark Drakeford said (to a press conference, of course) that no final decision had been made regarding a lockdown, something the health secretary reiterated in his media interview to the BBC yesterday. In this case, the Welsh government have not only disrespectful to the Senedd, but also to the Welsh people.
For a man who claims he is the advocate of ‘assertive devolution’, what the first minister really must support is an assertive government with a poor man’s parliament. To both the institution itself and its members, who represent constituencies and regions who will be impacted by these new rules, the Welsh government has simply put two fingers up and carried on governing from afar. Admittedly, the public feel they are making the right decisions on the whole, but they’re certainly going about it the wrong way.
Of course, it’s a complex business, this Covid politics. Since this crisis began, there have been 115 pieces of Welsh legislation that have been made relating to restrictions. The Welsh Government’s top legislative lawyer, Dylan Hughes, added that although the process would normally take “several weeks or even months”, Welsh laws can be drafted within hours as a result of the pandemic. But that’s more of a reason to get these laws in front of politicians for further scrutiny before they are made public, especially during a week that is the important moment for getting on top of the virus’ spread across Wales.
There is no doubt that we will see the first minister (virtually) tour the London TV studios once again today, proclaiming that now-famous line: ‘I believe in a successful United Kingdom and Wales’ place in it, the prime minister is the one who has undermined the Union’, etc. That’s fine. But the Welsh government cannot continue to overlook the Welsh parliament when it comes to key decision making, because of the severity of the situation we are in but also to ensure they uphold the democratic accountability of Welsh politics.
Many serious questions come with the much-anticipated circuit breaker announcement today: how will the Welsh government support businesses that will be impacted by sudden closure? What is the scientific grounding for a sweeping two-week lockdown? If this is such a crucial decision, why will the first minister wait until Friday before bringing it into force? The first minister must answer these questions in the Senedd. It’s the least he could do if he wants to show a bit more respect for Welsh democracy.