One Horse Race?

This week saw the first major event of the Welsh Labour leadership contest that began with Carwyn Jones’ announcement in April of his forthcoming resignation. The only declared candidate thus far, Mark Drakeford, gave a major speech at Cardiff University on Monday evening. Chairing the event, I had literally a front-row seat.

Although there has been limited interest from the UK news-media in the contest since Jones’ shock announcement – not least because of the paucity of runners – there was plenty of local interest in what Drakeford had to say. The original allocation of tickets for the venue were claimed within four hours, and the event had to be shifted to a much larger hall at Cardiff University. This interest did not arise because the minister has a reputation for spell-binding oratory – he does not. (His speaking style is highly suggestive of the Professor of Social Policy he once was.) But as the current strong favourite to become the most powerful Labour politician in the UK, it matters a lot what Mark Drakeford says.

Drakeford is Cabinet Secretary for Finance in the Welsh Government, but has also been responsible for handling Brexit issues since summer 2016; he has represented Wales on the (rather infrequently convened) Joint Ministerial Committee. It was those responsibilities to which the minister spoke in his lecture, entitled Brexit and Devolution. While most attention over Brexit has been on the difficulties in the external negotiations between the UK and the EU, or on the fractious internal politics at Westminster, the intra-UK inter-governmental dimension has hardly been short of difficulties either.

The implications of the EU Withdrawal Bill for devolution have been highly contentious, and for many months saw the Welsh Labour Government standing alongside the SNP Scottish Government, in opposition to what the UK Government was proposing. It was announced last month that the Welsh Government and its UK counterpart had reached an agreementon the bill, but their compromise has not been endorsed by the Scottish Government. So the audience were eager to hear what Mark Drakeford would say on this – and how he might appear as a prospective national leader.

In many respects this was a very impressive performance. Drakeford had prepared a detailed, but very clearly constructed, fifty-minute lecture that covered substantial ground. This, and the responses given to questions afterwards, will have left no-one present in any doubt that the minister was in full command of his brief. The lecture was no pasting together of past press releases, but a considered reflection on the current situation.

That reflection made everyone well aware of Drakeford’s own views. He made clear that he thought Brexit was the wrong decision, and that it would lead to ‘inescapable harm’ to both the UK and Wales. Yet he did not call for the decision of the referendum to be challenged or over-turned; rather, he emphasised the need to focus ‘on the form of Brexit, not the fact’, with the aim of seeking a soft Brexit that ‘mitigated the harm’ it would cause.

To do this, of course, the Welsh Government has to seek to influence those holding the reins of power in London. As he has done previously, Drakeford made obvious that he was less than impressed with much of the UK government’s handling of the Brexit process thus far. For the Welsh Government, however, there is no alternative approach: they have to ‘hang on to the back of the car, attempting to apply the brake and influence the steering’. Yet the minister also emphasised the need for Wales to work with allies where it could find them, and to seek to continue and even deepen other relationships across Europe.

One of the Welsh Government’s alliances in recent times has been that with the Scottish Government – one that has now fractured. As the minister representing Wales in much of these negotiations, Drakeford unsurprisingly defended the compromise with London. The only point in the evening where he appeared at all discomforted was when he was probed about Scottish Labour’s support for the Scottish Government’s rejection of that deal – why, he was asked, are Scottish Labour wrong? Seeking to avoid criticising his Labour colleagues, while also defending the agreement, was briefly an awkward moment.

Drakeford concluded by warning that Brexit was placing the future of the whole UK at risk. He argued the need for new structures of inter-governmental cooperation within the UK, based far more on parity between the different governments rather than the current hierarchical relationship between London and the devolved administrations. He also advocated a future Association Agreement between the UK and the EU as the means by which the referendum verdict could be respected while a positive and close relationship might be developed.

This was very much a ‘home fixture’ for Mark Drakeford: the pro-European former professor speaking at a University to an overwhelmingly Remain audience. There will be much tougher gigs on the leadership campaign trail than this. It confirmed much of what we already knew: that the front runner for the Welsh Labour leadership in an intelligent and thoughtful man, who as First Minister would be very capable of grasping the issues before him. It told us little about how well he might run a government; how well he could take Labour’s message to its traditional working-class support, which strongly backed Leave in 2016; and how well he will navigate the next seven months of the leadership race as the favourite. All that remains to be seen.