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Mark Drakeford: The first minister of Wales' highs and lows

Mark Drakeford
Mark Drakeford steps down as first minister on Tuesday

Mark Drakeford, who is standing down as Wales' first minister on Tuesday, proved popular with voters in the pandemic. But did the gloss come off?

Years ago, a spin doctor at a Welsh Labour conference told me how party members were going to help write policies.

So? Doesn't that happen all the time, I asked.

Yeah, but this time, apparently, it was different.

"We're not just going to let Mark Drakeford tell us what's going in the manifesto," he said.

It stuck in my mind as a sign of how much influence Mr Drakeford had long before he became a household name.

At the time, few people outside the Cardiff Bay bubble knew who the now-outgoing first minister was.

He had been Rhodri Morgan's closest advisor, coming up with policies in the early years of devolution.

Through the 1980s and 90s the pair became friends in the west of Cardiff, where Mr Morgan was the MP and Mr Drakeford cut his teeth in politics as a councillor.

In government, Mr Drakeford got busy setting an ideological course for Welsh Labour.

He gave it a soundbite: "Clear red water."

It meant doing things differently to the New Labour government of Tony Blair.

No academy schools and foundation hospitals for Wales. Instead, we got free bus passes for the over-60s and free prescriptions.

In 2011, Mr Drakeford succeeded Rhodri Morgan as Cardiff West's member of the Assembly. He was health and then Brexit minister under Carwyn Jones - before 2018, when it was his turn to lead.

Welsh Labour had been traumatised by the death former minister, Carl Sargeant.

Mr Drakeford's supporters hoped he could heal the party. Jane Hutt, perhaps his closest friend in politics, gushed that he would be a "blessing".

But his leadership began at a time when Labour was deeply divided over Brexit, anti-Semitism and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who Mr Drakeford supported.

All of that changed after Labour's heavy defeat at the 2019 general election and Mr Corbyn's ouster, when something happened that was an even bigger deal than Brexit: Covid.

No longer someone known to academics and political anoraks, Drakeford was thrust into the spotlight.

A man who said he dreaded grillings by the media and in the Senedd found himself at a lectern explaining to a nation why it needed to give up fundamental freedoms to protect itself from a deadly disease.

His academic style contrasted sharply with Boris Johnson - and is credited with winning people over.

Canvassing for the Senedd election in spring 2021 came soon after the second lockdown ended. Candidates had little idea what to expect when they knocked doors.

Within days of the campaign starting, Labour people were reporting back that their leader was an asset.

"Mark v popular," one texted me.

That popularity wrong-footed opponents and although Labour fell short of a majority - the Senedd's system makes majorities vanishingly rare - it gave Mr Drakeford the authority to form a government and sign a deal with Plaid Cymru.

Mark Drakeford and Prince Charles
Mark Drakeford with King Charles

Soon, Keir Starmer was calling Mr Drakeford's Welsh Labour his "blueprint" for government.

It was confirmation that the Welsh Labour leader had overcome the divisions in his party.

Now we're asking whether the gloss has come off, largely because of a policy that provoked a ferocious backlash: The 20mph law.

Shortly before publishing a cost-cutting budget last December, a poll suggested public approval of him - while still higher than rivals in the Senedd - had slipped behind that of Mr Starmer.

Our political editor Gareth Lewis invited Sir Keir to repeat his "blueprint" endorsement in an interview last October. Twice, he declined to do so.

Mr Drakeford's exit is pretty much in line with the timetable he announced when he took up the reins.

He's taken some difficult decisions on spending cuts and the 20mph speed limit, which means Vaughan Gething won't have to.

The agreement with Plaid Cymru offers political stability.

And if Labour wins the general election, there is the prospect of a friendly government in Westminster before the year ends.

On the other hand, Mr Gething will inherit a budget that has forced NHS doctors out on strike.

Who knows how voters will react when they're asked to elect a bigger and more expensive Senedd under a controversial new electoral system in 2026.

The deal with Plaid is due to run out in December, around the time of the next budget.

And Sir Keir has made no promises that the Welsh government will get the extra money it wants.

It's a paradoxical legacy from a politician who has been difficult to categorise.

Mark Drakeford
Mark Drakeford's Labour won 30 of the 60 seats up for grabs at the last Senedd election

Mr Drakeford's style fitted his title: professor. In public, patiently explaining his point of view. In private, chuckling and collegiate.

But he can be stubborn. He's not shy of combative language - and when that wasn't enough on one memorable occasion, he completely blew his top.

If devolution has changed Wales - for better or worse - surely no one person has had a bigger impact than him.

It's often said Welsh Labour's ability to keep winning elections is because it expresses a kind of Welshness that leaves no space for its opponents.

As a backroom operator, Mark Drakeford helped come up with that strategy. As its leader, he embodied it.