Probably for the first time, Mark Drakeford and The Spectator were on the same page this week. “Where’s Boris?”, the magazine asked on its front cover. It’s a question that has undoubtedly been asked many, many times before, but even the First Minister was wondering where Johnson was.
It suddenly dawned on him at a press conference: Drakeford realised he hadn’t heard from the PM properly since May. Another sign – as if the First Minister needed it – of a sense of emptiness at the heart of the UK’s power base.
This void of leadership, exacerbated by the government’s recent calamitous approach to the Internal Market Bill, has been building throughout the pandemic. Slowness to introduce lockdown, pushing the idea of herd immunity and then suppressing the virus (now back to the former), the rush to ease restrictions, that trip to Barnard Castle, failures of test-and-trace, and ever-confusing guidelines: it is abundantly clear that Downing Street still has no coherent strategy in place.
And now even Boris’ beloved former magazine, as well as a host of conservative commentators, are now lamenting their decision to back this entertaining former journalist who is not fit for serious government. ‘Cripes!’ as the PM exclaims.
But this is not to let the Welsh government off the hook. Mark Drakeford has had a bad week, with a disastrous data breach at Public Health Wales being revealed two weeks after it took place. There’s also been fierce criticism over the government’s delay in introducing face coverings in shops, debates over the Caerphilly lockdown guidance, and rising infection rates in areas such as Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf to deal with.
Viewed through the eyes of a cynic, Drakeford’s attack on Johnson – coinciding with jibes from Nicola Sturgeon – may well have been an effective way to shift the focus on to an easy target.
But all four nations of the UK want to move forward together, according to Michael Gove (is he the one in charge?). Representatives of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland joined the Cabinet minister for a “constructive” call yesterday after hours of unhappy protests from Drakeford and demands from Sturgeon for a COBRA meeting to take place. So are the fab four getting back together, after all? The answer is most likely to be… no.
Not only because this government’s genuine interest in the devolved nations is thin at the best of times, but because it is difficult to see how a ‘four-nation approach’ is more than just an ailing slogan regurgitated by leaders at the start of the pandemic. Besides, it isn’t a popular or arguably an effective means of dealing with the pandemic.
In reality, the people of Wales have little confidence in UK government policy when it comes to coronavirus. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, for instance, shows clear evidence of greater support not only for Mark Drakeford as leader but in his government’s approach to the crisis over recent months.
Yet surely Drakeford is right: pooling ideas, resources and developing a formalised system of engagement would be wise for nations that are bound together by geography, economics and politics. You’d think so, but with such a chaotic government in Westminster, it’s hard to see how that will be co-ordinated.
As Drakeford pointed out, developing a more strategic level of engagement with the other nations isn’t so that each nation can make the same decisions, but because being round the same table allows each leader to make the best decisions for the nations they represent. An admirable, if not hopeless, endeavour.
The First Minister and his government mustn’t pin their hopes on Downing Street getting its act together. It should, as it has done over the last six months, focus on the decisions that are best in the interests of the people of Wales. This is complicated enough already. Dr. Eilir Hughes, writing for this publication, articulated how government policy has failed to end the pandemic across the UK. A sobering if not utterly depressing read, Dr. Hughes’ analysis captures just how important a clear and effective strategy will be as we head into the winter months.
I’m writing this at the heart of a leafy west London suburb, after six months in Llanelli during the pandemic. It is a strange feeling to know that I don’t rely on Mark Drakeford to take decisions for me any longer, but Boris Johnson.
A former social policy professor with a measured and communitarian approach to the pandemic versus a charlatan who has built his career on bluff, rhetoric and a self-caricature based on gaffes. I certainly know who I’d feel safer having in charge.