The relationship between the Welsh and UK governments is “fractured” and can only be healed with a change in the approach from Westminster, First Minister Mark Drakeford has told The National.

In a frank and wide-ranging interview, Mr Drakeford:

  • Admitted that with his own government’s approach to care homes during the early stages of the Covid crisis had been the wrong one
  • Said he would be serve at least half of the next term as first minister, if Labour is returned to power in May, before stepping down
  • And said it was ‘hard to see’ circumstances in which Labour could accept an independence referendum as a price for support from Plaid in any coalition government.

Fractured relationship

“If I had to choose a single word [to describe relations between the Welsh and UK governments], then the kindest word would be ‘mixed’ and the less positive word would be ‘fractured’,” said Mr Drakeford.

“Fractured because for the first time in devolution we are faced with a government at Westminster which has outright hostility to devolution at its heart and an aggressively unilateral way of going about the business of the United Kingdom.”

The first minister said that fracture could be repaired but would require a very different approach from Westminster. He cited the way city deals were managed as an example, saying they had previously been a partnership and with an “agreed rulebook”.

“I was involved as the finance minister in the Welsh Government in establishing the Swansea Bay City Deal,” he said. “Negotiations to set it up were considerable. We spent a significant amount of time negotiating that tripartite agreement, agreeing what the projects would be, who would pay for each element. The then prime minister Theresa May travelled to Swansea to launch the city deal jointly with the then first minister and the leaders of local authorities.”

He contrasted that to last week’s budget when Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a change in the way city deals would now work. “That was the first we heard of it,” said Mr Drakeford. “We and the local authorities have been completely cut off. That’s what I mean by aggressive unilateralism.”

Price of coalition

With such an approach arguably fuelling a rise in nationalism as seen in a clutch of recent polls, the question of independence is fast moving up the agenda.

The first minister remains a unionist – “the UK is stronger for having Wales in it and Wales is stronger by being part of the UK” – but with Plaid Cyrmu putting a commitment to a referendum in its manifesto, could that be part of coalition horse-trading in May?

“I have always believed that if a party that has an independence referendum in its prospectus for the electorate and wins a majority, then that party should be allowed to hold a referendum,” he said. “I’ve always thought that was true of Scotland and I certainly think it is true of Wales.

“But I think it is contingent upon a party winning the support of sufficient Welsh people to create a government. That will not be in my party’s manifesto and I don’t think it will be in any party’s manifesto other than Plaid Cymru.

“My aim will be to be able to form a Labour government but Labour-led governments have worked with other parties in more Senedd terms than not. I and my colleagues are very used to working across the aisle but that’s always been on the basis of a shared programme.

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“There are a lot of ‘ifs’ here, but I don’t think that the Welsh public will have supported that proposition [a referendum] in the election and therefore it’s hard to see why that should form the basis of a programme for the next five years.”

While he was open to working with Plaid, referendum aside, as well as current coalition partner the Lib Dems, Mr Drakeford was clear about those he would not work with to form a government.

“We will never form any working arrangement with the Tories,” he said. “Beyond them there are fringe elements further to the right even of the Welsh Conservatives so we would have to rule them out as well.

“For me, in all the arrangements we have had the thing that matters most is you have a shared programme. It’s the policy that matters, that you can agree on a set of policy proposals and priorities that different parties can all sign up to. Then you’ve got an honest proposition to put to people in Wales and I could never imagine that being true of [Labour and] the Welsh Conservative Party.”

Pandemic lessons

Covid, along with Brexit, has dominated Mr Drakeford’s term in office. The first minister admits his government has made mistakes in the pandemic, in particular around care homes.

“We have learned a lot about the way in which coronavirus made its way into care homes in Wales, which we didn’t fully appreciate at the outset,” he said.

“if we knew then what we knew now we would have done more, for example to respond to the fact that in Wales care home ownership is still much more of a cottage industry than it is in England. The standard in Wales is still a family business with two or three care homes and the way or running them would be for the staff to move between the three.

“We now know that brought risks with it as people moved from one to the next. Given the enormous impact that coronavirus has had in the care home sector, that would be something we would have done differently.”

Overall, however, he believes the government has “taken the public with them” in its response to Covid, citing polls showing around seven in ten people support the way Wales has handled the pandemic.

Stepping down

Mr Drakeford has already said he will not serve a full five years as first minister, if his party forms the next government after May’s elections but told The National he would expect to stay in post for at least half of the term.

“I would certainly establish the next government,” he said. “I would certainly expect to see it into the second half of the Senedd term and then there will come a point when it is right that somebody who expects to be there beyond this term takes on the job in exactly the same way as both my predecessors did.

"Both Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones served into the second half of a term and then stood down, when there was a period for their successor to establish themselves and get ready to lead the Labour Party into an election five years from now.”

With world events dominating, there hasn’t been much time to consider the first minister's legacy when he does leave office.

“What I would like to have used the time I am first minister for, is to have continued to have implemented a programme of practical socialism of the sort that chimes with the way people in Wales think of the country they belong to, and the future they would want to craft,” he said.

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“All of that has been immensely complicated by Brexit on the one hand and coronavirus on the other. I hope that when people look back at the extraordinary last 12 months, they will feel we had a government who worked as hard as they could to keep Wales safe. That is something I would hope people would remember from this period.

“And that they had a government in Wales which was intensely Welsh, in the sense of being committed to Wales and the country we are, and the unique characteristics in terms of language and landscape and so on, but at the same time progressive, in that we are a progressive government that saw Wales as an outward looking open country and worked every day to create a more equal Wales.”

Wales goes to the polls on May 6 to elect a new Senedd.

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