11 December has long stirred the imagination of the Welsh. On this day in 1282, the last native Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was slain by Edward I’s army at Cilmeri. The Tywysog’s head was then apparently taken to the Tower of London and put on display for 15 years. The Welsh he left behind were first conquered and later assimilated into their larger neighbour – marking the beginning of the ancient political, cultural and economic partnership between Wales and England. Nobody has credibly challenged the union since.
Welsh legend has it that we will eventually be rescued from our English captors by Y Mab Darogan: a prophesised son of destiny. But attaining nationhood has long been just a dream: the medieval rebel Owain Glyndŵr failed in his revolt against another English king and over four hundred years later the ‘Welsh Wizard’ David Lloyd George was more interested in elevating the politics of his nation within Britain. The current Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, desperately wishes to be Y Mab Darogan.
Yet for several months it has looked like a new candidate to be the ‘Mab’ has emerged, in the unlikely form of a former probation officer who now is at the top of Welsh politics: Mark Drakeford. The unassuming First Minister of Wales has developed a large media platform and strong political profile this year. His poll ratings have consistently topped the rankings compared to other Welsh politicians. The Prime Minister’s favourability has collapsed in comparison, as Cardiff has charted a different course from Westminster during the pandemic.
Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, who as Alex Massie argues seems to get more popular as she makes more mistakes, Drakeford has pursued a communitarian and cautious approach to Covid-19 that has been supported by the Welsh public. A cautious re-opening after the first wave; professorial and authoritative press conferences; and constant criticism of the UK government has stirred the emotions across Offa’s Dyke like never before.
The crown jewel in Cardiff’s divergence from Westminster policy was the ‘firebreak’ implemented at the end of October. Despite the unpopularity of Drakeford’s decision to ban non-essential goods being sold in supermarkets, the Welsh public supported the 17-day lockdown. England, at the same time, seemed to be sleepwalking toward winter with rising Covid cases. The mood in Wales was jubilant when we left our lockdown as England went into theirs. It would be a Nadolig Llawen (merry Christmas) after all, thanks to Mr Drakeford.
Or so we thought. The current number of Welsh Covid-19 cases reported daily, as well as the number of people in hospital, are now at their highest levels recorded. There are warnings that the Welsh NHS, stretched and prone to underperformance at the best of times, will be at a tipping point if there are further admissions to hospitals. There is no doubt: in Wales, we are facing a Covid crisis.
For the first time during the pandemic, the First Minister is under real pressure. His decision earlier this month to ban alcohol sales in pubs and restaurants, and to close hospitality venues at 6pm, has shattered the sector during its busiest period. The Welsh government has now also said schools and colleges will close. Outdoor attractions – whatever that means – are also expected to shut. And to make matters worse, a new firebreak is likely to be put in place after Christmas.
But the most surprising element of recent events has been the First Minister’s public response. Mark Drakeford has built his pandemic-PR on being the sensible leader in the room, willing to listen and to analyse the facts – contrasting himself with the performance of the Prime Minister. Yet this week he has turned to, in effect, blaming the Welsh public for the rising infection rates (rather than admitting the likely pitfalls of government policy). The reaction to Drakeford’s statements has been visceral, and has only been amplified by the First Minister’s denial that the situation in Wales is not ‘out of control’.
This reaction to the First Minister’s comments is important. As Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle showed this summer, a government can lose the confidence and support of its public very quickly. Compliance with the regulations is imperative if Wales is to lift itself out of the mess it is currently in. But the First Minister’s balancing act between opening up society and implementing Covid restrictions is looking wobblier by the day.
The First Minister likely still has the backing of the majority of the Welsh public. The alternatives – a Plaid Cymru that is desperate for independence to top the political agenda, and a Welsh Conservative group that is stuck in an ideological bubble – are not an immediate threat to Welsh Labour’s dominance.
Yet there is a long road to May’s Senedd elections, and further policy mistakes and PR errors may just cost the First Minister crucial votes in his bid to form a majority government. The man who has won plaudits for his handling of the pandemic, as well as raising the profile of devolution, is now being scrutinised as never before. As the situation gets worse on the western shores of these Isles, Mark Drakeford’s destiny in shaping the future of Wales looks increasingly uncertain by the day.