(Title Image: Senedd Cymru via Twitter)
Safe to say, a lot has happened over the last twelve months. With less than a year until the next scheduled Senedd election – and with summer recess starting next week – here’s (hopefully) the final end of year assessment of the Fifth Senedd.
If the Senedd is recalled for any important/urgent discussions over the summer they’ll be covered but, to be frank, I’m exhausted and need an extended break. Barring that scenario, Senedd Home returns w/c 7th September 2020 with a round-up of whatever’s happened over the summer.
Mark Drakeford MS (Lab, Cardiff West)
There’ve been two Mark Drakefords this year.
Pre-pandemic Drakeford (D) had one foot out the door following the European Parliament and snap UK elections, overseeing some of Labour’s poorest electoral results in years and being a rather surly and unenthusiastic presence in the Senedd chamber. At the start of the year, I thought there was a genuine prospect of a leadership challenge.
By contrast, Pandemic Drakeford (B+) has been a cautious, reassuring presence during a national emergency. That’s the difference between having a career academic as a leader instead of a populist. Decisions have been based on informed advice and evidence, not emotions or gut instinct.
While there’s an element of stubbornness to how he goes about things and some issues haven’t been communicated as well as they could’ve been – particularly at the start of the pandemic – his profile and standing has improved several-fold. He’s built up a lot of goodwill in the process – particularly amongst nationalists – but undid it with some poorly-chosen words. If it’s one thing that Mark Drakeford and Adam Price have in common it’s they both slip up chasing the perfect soundbite.
Rebecca Evans MS (Lab, Gower)
Minister for Finance & Trefnydd
You would think that being handed an additional £2billion+ to spend would make this an easy job, but the supplementary/emergency budget proved that tough choices still had to be made. There were tentative signs that austerity was perhaps coming to an end but there’s no telling what the longer-term financial impact of the pandemic and Brexit completion will be.
The Minister has managed to stick to the manifesto pledge not to increase devolved income tax (despite the inevitable pressure to do so) and put forward a fairly generous package of support for smaller and medium-sized businesses affected by the pandemic, as well as a more recent sensible compromise on temporary land transaction tax cuts. Most of the major fiscal levers remain in London, but Rebecca Evans has done a fairly solid job with the tools at her disposal and seems on top of things. Next year looks rough, though.
Vaughan Gething MS (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)
Minister for Health & Social Services
I won’t make myself popular by doing so, but I don’t think it’s fair to “grade” Vaughan Gething having been at the forefront of a situation the likes of which we haven’t faced in more than 100 years. That shouldn’t be interpreted as letting him off the hook, though.
While there are plenty of things you could legitimately criticise him for, there’s been a lot of sniping too; “chip gate” was a petty smear, criticism of field hospitals was a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” and the Jenny Rathbone outburst you can put down as a human reaction – but it’s not a good look for a minister.
There’s quiet acceptance that his department didn’t make the right calls at the right time on some aspects of the pandemic response, but so many things were promised – testing targets, for example – which were never delivered. The recent Health & Social Care Committee report makes uncomfortable reading and while not all of the blame lies directly at his door, he’s accountable for it.
The saving grace is the UK Government’s management of the pandemic has been far worse in terms of the public health response, but decisions made at Vaughan’s desk could have made the difference between life, life-limiting disability or death for thousands of people. I doubt his insistence that there was nothing wrong in releasing asymptomatic hospital patients back to care homes will stand up under closer scrutiny.
Kirsty Williams MS (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)
Minister for Education
The stand-out ministerial performance this year, possibly of the Fifth Senedd. What’s marked her out is the clarity of communication during the pandemic when the Welsh Government’s messaging was often muddled. A willingness to listen to children directly impacted by her decisions – even threatening a school with closure due to safeguarding problems – demonstrates a commitment to children’s rights.
She had to make several big calls fairly quickly as the pandemic situation changed, including the decisions to close schools and to cancel this year’s GCSEs, AS and A-Level exams.
That said, it’s not perfect. The school reopening for the shortened summer half-term was a mess and there doesn’t seem to have been much consultation with teachers – though, on balance, it was right to ensure students had some contact time with teachers before the summer holidays.
Based on what’s happened this year, there’s a lot to live up to when it comes to rolling out the new curriculum and it could be a bumpy ride – though she might not necessarily remain in government to see it through after next May’s elections and the Conservatives are perhaps right to ask for implementation to be delayed.
Ken Skates MS (Lab, Clwyd South)
Minister for Economy & Transport
Ken Skates might be a bit too fond of a photo-op, but he usually talks the talk when it comes to fighting fires and there’ve been several this year, notably the collapse of Flybe, the Ford engine plant closure (and potential collapse of the Ineos deal), Airbus and GE job losses and the economic impact of the pandemic and Brexit. Support for businesses during the pandemic has been fairly comprehensive, but there’ve been notable gaps such as some limited companies.
The biggest let down has, perhaps, been the performance of rail over the autumn. We were promised that problems relating to technical issues would be dealt with and Pacers would be gone by the start of 2020, but it hasn’t happened.
Some of the Welsh Government’s business investment choices and priorities may end up coming back to haunt him too just in time for next year’s election. There’s a storm coming.
Lesley Griffiths MS (Lab, Wrexham)
Minister for Energy, Environment & Rural Affairs
The other major national emergency in Wales this year – which it seems many people have forgotten about – were Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge. The Minister was fairly quick to offer financial assistance to affected households, but there’s been an awful lot of finger-pointing at Natural Resources Wales and the case is becoming clearer for a root and branch reform (given the Welsh Government’s terrible tree-planting record too).
When compared to Kirsty Williams there’s been a distinct lack of pace in decision-making, meaning it seems to take longer than necessary to get things done (a Welsh version of “Lucy’s Law” being a case in point). Having to deal with continuing preparations for Brexit completion hasn’t helped, so it’s worth giving the Minister the benefit of the doubt.
Julie James MS (Lab, Swansea West)
Minister for Local Government & Housing
The other stand-out performance. Local government’s response to the February 2020 floods and the pandemic has largely been on point and, in some cases, quite exceptional.
The Local Government & Elections Bill is fairly solid, but I don’t understand the insistence that individual councils should choose their election method.
The pandemic has proven that policies such as eradicating rough-sleeping can be addressed if the will and means are there. I certainly believe the will is there with Julie, but it always seems to take longer than necessary to get where things need to be because of endless discussions behind the scenes. Based on her performance to date, I don’t think Julie James should have anything to fear from trusting her own judgement.
Eluned Morgan MS (Lab, Mid & West Wales)
Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language
With the completion of Brexit imminent, 2020 should’ve been Eluned’s year but events scuppered those plans. There’s definite enthusiasm and the Minister has made the right calls on things like engaging with the diaspora.
However, there’s an awful lot of waffle too and the biggest weakness seems to be a reluctance to set targets to judge her performance by – particularly concerning the international strategy. It’s unclear how seriously the Welsh Government are taking the Cymraeg 2050 policy either. Brexit is inevitably going to be the go-to excuse for the next decade when anything goes wrong economically, but we could’ve done more to prepare and stand up for ourselves.
Due to changes in how Labour will select candidates for the Mid & West Wales list, there’s an outside chance she could be deselected. While I don’t think Eluned has lived up to the hype, that still would be an upset.
Counsel General and Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), is clearly becoming one of the front-runners to eventually succeed Mark Drakeford. Being put in charge of the pandemic response is more than a nod at a serious promotion in the future. He’s consistently one of the most impressive and thoughtful members of the Labour front bench and I just hope the post-pandemic plan has some real meat and doesn’t become a typically Welsh Government list of ambitions and frameworks.
Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), has been quietly impressive yet again. There was a measure of compromise on the smacking ban – with a delayed introduction and moves to monitor its effectiveness – as well as a commitment to cut the shocking number of Welsh children taken into care.
Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), has put his money where his mouth is in terms of spending on active travel – though it’s unclear if all of the schemes put forward by councils honour the spirit of the Active Travel Act. He’s certainly taken advantage of reduced car use during the pandemic to promote new ways of getting around, but the big question is whether it’ll last?
Deputy Local Government & Housing Minister, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), has made some progress on moves to reduce single-use plastics, but it’s almost been pushed to one side by the pandemic when not that long ago it was one of the most pressing issues in politics. There’s also a cruel sense of irony, given that surgical masks and gloves are single-use plastics.
Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) failure to do much about the state of the Welsh media and broadcasting has been brought into sharper contrast. He’ll leave a legacy when he stands down next year, but there’s a full in-tray given the precarious state of the arts, tourism and (now) Welsh print press. These last 10 months can’t be wasted. Similarly, there’s little to report regarding Chief Whip and Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan).
Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.)
Leader of the Opposition
Paul Davies’ efforts to cut a role for himself as the Senedd’s anti-establishment figurehead have lacked credibility given it’s seemingly never been in his character (unlike Andrew RT Davies), not helped by painfully low levels of publicity and visibility amongst the public (even by Welsh political standards). Either he’s being badly advised, or London has far more influence on the Welsh Tories and their messaging than we thought.
The Welsh Conservatives were suspiciously quiet during the early phases of pandemic and only found their voice when Wales started to diverge from England in lockdown policy – perhaps leading to them misreading the public mood.
For example, their social media campaign against the so-called “cruel 5-mile rule”, and attempts to claim credit for the Welsh Government’s pre-arranged and pre-announced easing of restrictions, came across as an unhinged channelling of the UK Government’s bunny boiling Unionism.
2021 will be their best chance yet of biting a sizable chunk out of Labour in the Senedd – maybe putting themselves in the frame to form an alternative government. But they’re throwing that opportunity away having gotten too big-headed too soon off the back of electoral successes and focusing on quick non-wins (like their attempts to revive the Newport bypass), threatening more than a decade of highly effective work adapting to devolution.
Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr)
Plaid Cymru usually does a good job of staying on top of topical matters and have been asking the right questions by and large. As demonstrated a few weeks ago, they also make good use of opposition debates to catch the government out.
In the absence of an arena to do that during the pandemic, it led to policy by press release – throwing ideas out and hoping something sticks. Plaid picked up on the care home and testing scandals early on, but once those issues were partially addressed a lot of the heat was taken out of it – though you could argue they kept the pressure on.
The big development over the last twelve months has been Welsh independence going mainstream. It’s right to acknowledge Plaid Cymru’s key role in making it happen at Yes Cymru and AUOB’s lead – but they still can’t galvanise support for independence with support for Plaid at the ballot box. Recent moves to modernise the party’s campaign infrastructure, like the Plaid app, are welcome but will it cut through before next May?
Yet again, any good work done in the Senedd and elsewhere has been partly overshadowed by unnecessary distractions off the field: a large Electoral Commission fine for poor accounting, two antisemitism rows involving the same person, another run-in with Neil McEvoy, Jonathan Edwards’ arrest and police caution, as well as Adam’s cringe-worthy comments on reparations. It happens so regularly now it’s enough to make you think it’s deliberate or even entryism. If they can’t run themselves effectively, how can they expect us to trust them with running the country?