NEARLY two years on from the start of the pandemic and some still can’t quite put their finger on it. ‘Mark Drakeford: from humdrum politician to unlikely man of the hour.’ 

The Sunday Times’ feature was the latest that tried to explain the transformation of the shabby-looking social policy academic to Welsh political enigma.

According to the newspaper, his success was down to ‘casting himself as the anti-Boris Johnson: grave not flippant, cautious not careless, a man who would not know a lockdown party if a prosecco cork hit him in the eye.’

There is some truth to this; the first minister is more likely to hover over a cheese board rather than a bucket of wine. But he has also said any lockdown gatherings would have been viewed in a “very dim” fashion if they happened on Welsh government property.

Let us imagine, then, there was some semblance of Partygate in Cathays Park.

Drakeford’s disgust at the prospect left many wondering what he looked like furious, after all. I imagine it would most likely resemble Professor Putdown we saw in November: Welsh Conservatives sank into their seats, sulking in the Senedd as they were jabbed by pointed fingers in a lesson on maturity and intellectual capacity. A furious FM went viral on social media.

An untidy appearance and affable demeanour masks this more clinical streak that we are seeing more often in public.

As Welsh Labour, like its parent in London, continues to reap the rewards of the prime minister’s dwindling authority the first minister has continued to land a series of punches.

His latest attack was the bluntest, with a brutal summary on national television about how Downing Street’s hunger for positive headlines was driving the easing of Covid restrictions rather than science.

Drakeford has unparalleled political space to make these statements.

Welsh Conservatives, who at least this week mustered the basic courage to agree they should have an official leader, are shut out of frontline politics: irrelevant, noisy spectators unsure of their political strategy and uncomfortable with a confused identity.

Cheap soundbites may land well with grassroots activists and their own Tory Twitter bubbles but they are far from the minds of the public.

READ MORE: 'Welsh Conservatives are the real lightweights in their party'

YouGov’s most recent findings should serve as a reminder of this: almost two-thirds of the public, a huge and definitive majority, favour the Welsh government’s approach to the pandemic compared to Downing Street.

And pity the English too: the same polling showed almost a third of our neighbours long to live under Drakeford’s cautious approach to the crisis rather than feel the consequences of Johnson’s continuous shoot-from-the-hip gambles.

It is little surprise that Drakeford is the most popular politician in Wales and the UK.

His success can be seen through the prism of his own qualities (the three C’s: clinical, clear and cautious) but also what the Welsh have come to expect from their leaders.

Extroverts and performers, like Johnson, are out of fashion. Though few, if any, dynamic and charismatic political characters emerged in the devolution era, those with national popularity now have for different reasons than bantering on Have I Got News for You.

The two standout political figures in Wales, Drakeford and Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price, are not entertainers by nature but they are by no means boring and bland.

Conversations with them are funny, warm and engaging. Both are comfortable meeting people and seem more sociable than Johnson himself.

They are media savvy and can give speeches (Price being the more fluid orator in both languages.) The crucial element to their dominance of politics and the news agenda is that they are what Johnson is not: decent men of integrity.

READ MORE: Cymru’s Comeback Kid: The Adam Price Interview

Politics is always performative, though integrity – and competence – cannot be faked well. The true stuff of leaders is always exposed eventually, as a dismayed Johnson has experienced in recent months.

The relationship between Drakeford and Price is critical to the governance of the country and they are seen to be an effective double act; the master and the apprentice, if you like, who are as natural in public view as they are in discussion behind-closed-doors, behaving in a co-operative way. This is what the people of Wales, though still slightly ignorant of devolution, have come to expect and demand from leaders.

Honesty and capability have long been undervalued in British politics. It has taken suitcases allegedly stuffed with wine to make England question whether its leaders have a grip on things.

Drakeford and Price are, respectively, transparent on issues that confront them. There is some obfuscation by the Welsh government on a Welsh-only Covid-inquiry, though its leader has always admitted mistakes and been clear about the stark choices he faces even when pandemic policies stoke frustration in some quarters.

Price has been ready to own political challenges too, including electoral performances and in his real vision for the party.

This is what, I suspect, voters and indeed politicians appreciate. Many leaders have their own distinctly attractive charisma, like the late Rhodri Morgan, but few like him could combine originality with written-off values like decency and dedication to hard work.

A tale of two nations shows this most starkly. A paucity of leadership in England – so long in the clutches of showmanship – needs direction on crises spanning living costs, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the pandemic.

READ MORE: Drakeford’s grip on power would make even Johnson jealous

And at least Wales’ frontline politicians are rarely caught up in personal scandal and face challenges with the interests of the country in mind, not what their backbenchers may say.

Perhaps because Wales is filled to the brim with a genial people that this behaviour is reflected in its leadership, though growing numbers in England ache for a government that is accountable and honest. 

The demand and scrutiny of political office are great, wherever you are, and recognising the sacrifice of leaders is no sycophantic ode.

We should praise those politicians that are honest, steady-as-they-go characters who fight our interests. Not unpopular performers pandering for affirmation from a certain class or group, who turn their noses at those who question their right to rule. In Wales, we leave that to the Eisteddfod.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.