Daran Hill, Managing Director at Positif public affairs consultancy
The decision by Mark Drakeford – and it was clearly his decision – not to proceed with the M4 Relief Road is perhaps not only his most important one to date, but arguably the most significant move by Welsh Government since the WDA and other quangos were burnt in the bonfire fifteen years ago.
Am I exaggerating the point? I’m struggling to see how. It has been years since a single policy pronouncement has held such weight and symbolic power. If you’re still unconvinced of the importance, read the independent report by the inspector, which made a compelling case for its building. To reject that clear recommendation was no small matter.
The sense of relief on the Labour benches was significant and noticeable. If the decision had gone the other way, ministerial resignations could have followed and certainly divisions within Labour would have opened up further. Done this way round, unity is maintained, and a decision is made around which all the Labour group can and must coalesce.
It is bigger than a road. It is a signal that new values are being embedded at the heart or government. Environmentalism and value for money are now proper planks of government policy on which it will build – or perhaps, as in this case, not build.
The climate emergency declared by Welsh Government over a month ago now finally has some policies to deal with that pronounced emergency. This decision translates emergency declaration to emergency action.
It also reinforces a dividing line in the Senedd which was there already with Brexit, but Labour is keen to emphasise – the Conservatives and Brexit/UKIP on one side of the divide, Labour with Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats on the other.
It is a positioning many in senior Labour circles are keen on, recognising that the future shape of government may need such alliances.
Indeed, it might well be the first palpable sign of the shape of the next Welsh Government, in the same way the Labour-Plaid budget deal of 2006 augured a potential coalition between them the following year.
I called that right at the time, and ever since I’ve been a firm believer that the shape of government in Wales can be sensed well before it is formed by not only the opinion polls, which point to seat tallies, but by the alignment on key policy decisions. Keep watching this one.
But returning to the current shape or government, we now know a great deal about what makes Mark Drakeford tick and where his instincts and red lines lie. He has made it clear that he has no appetite for the structural reform of local government, something that has preoccupied most local government ministers other than himself over the past decade.
He has also been dragged, albeit unwillingly, by a coalition of discontent within Labour to a more hardline position of opposition to Brexit than ever seemed possible when I wrote this piece a couple of months ago about the evaporating Clear Red Water in relation to Labour positioning.
I did not misspeak, but I certainly spoke too soon. Things have changed.
On the three central questions of domestic policy, Drakeford has now ditched the position and priorities of his predecessor – the M4 Relief Road, local government reform, and accepting the Brexit vote. This is now a very different administration from Carwyn’s.
Mark Drakeford appears to be finally setting his own agenda.
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