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Covid crisis makes Mark Drakeford most recognisable leader in 22 years of Welsh devolution 

Mark Drakeford has pounded the streets of Wales seeking votes for more than three decades and grown used to people going out of their way to avoid bumping into a group of canvassers on the election trail. But he says the mood has been different for this year’s Welsh parliament election campaign.

“People have stopped to talk, people have crossed the road to have a conversation. I’ve been in a number of elections in which people cross the road to make sure they don’t have to talk to you.”

The Covid crisis has made Drakeford the most recognisable first minister in the 22 years of Welsh devolution. There have been many doorstep double-takes. “They say: ‘Is it you?’ or ‘Are you sure it’s you?’ A lot of people say they watch every news conference. People are very keen to tell you their experiences of the pandemic.”

It also helps that the weather has been fine and during the campaign and lockdown measures have been loosened. On Monday, gyms, swimming pools and community centres were re-opening and some people were able to hug for the first time.

“After a long, hard winter, people have been out and about and there’s a real sense of buoyancy, optimism and hope,” Drakeford said.

Labour has led the devolved administration – either alone or with support from others – since the first Senedd elections in 1999. In 2016, the party won 29 of the 60 seats. The nationalists, Plaid Cymru, came second and the Conservatives third. Labour governed with the help of the sole Liberal Democrat member and an independent.

Drakeford took over as first minister from Carwyn Jones in December 2018. A keen supporter of Jeremy Corbyn (with whom he shares passions for cricket and their allotments), he promised “radical socialist traditions” in the style of Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and former first minister Rhodri Morgan.

During the Covid crisis, however, it is his measured approach rather than radicalism that has won him plaudits.

He has also endeared himself to some by being unafraid to call out Boris Johnson on what he sees as a dismissive attitude to Wales. Drakeford said he had been in only one meeting with the prime minister “in the last many months”. Michael Gove chairs Covid meetings between Westminster and the devolved governments. “He [Johnson] seems to be an absentee from the conduct of relations across the UK.”

Drakeford sees Johnson as a threat to the future of the union. He flagged claims in the Sunday Telegraph that the prime minister is intending to spend billions of pounds on Scotland to head off an independence referendum.

“This is a disrespectful approach to devolution, the idea that Whitehall knows better than people based in the devolved nations, and drives people towards independence. The Financial Times said the Conservative party will have to choose between the union and Boris Johnson. That is looking increasingly true to me.”

Drakeford insists that, in fact, the subject of independence does not get raised on the doorstep. “In hundreds of conversations I have had including at doors with Plaid Cymru posters in the window, nobody has asked about independence.”

He said people wanted a “strong sense” that decisions affecting people in Wales should be made in Wales. “I share that view myself. I want a powerful and entrenched devolution. The UK is better off having Wales in it and Wales is better off as part of the UK.”

Drakeford said people had begun to spontaneously raise the sleaze questions surrounding Johnson. “There are a lot of questions for Downing Street to answer. People detect a sense of evasiveness. People don’t like the sense that things are being kept from them. I don’t think it’s playing well for the prime minister.”

The Welsh Labour leader is in the midst of a final sprint – 20 constituencies in the last five days of the campaign. His handling of Covid may be the number one issue but it isn’t the only one.

“In second place is the issue of jobs. Lots of people ask about their children and grandchildren – what it will be like for them as they come out of college or school. Where the jobs will come from.” A key pledge for Labour is to provide “a young person’s guarantee” of an offer of work, education or training for everyone under 25.

Drakeford said people also wanted to speak about climate change and he tells them about Labour’s plans to use its natural resources – wind, wave power and so on – to rebuild in the post-Covid world.

The electoral system in Wales means that Labour will almost certainly not win an overall majority. A coalition with Plaid is widely seen as the most likely final shape of the government.

Drakeford says, naturally, that he is focused on winning every vote possible but does not rule out a partnership. “We have demonstrated over 20 years a willingness to work across party boundaries where that creates a stable and progressive government,” he said.

Even if Labour is re-elected, Drakeford made it clear he would, in all likelihood, be handing over to a new Welsh Labour leader before the end of the five-year term.

“If we get elected I want to finish the job of dealing with coronavirus and putting Wales on the path to a stronger, greener, fairer future. There will come a time when it will be right to hand on to someone who will go well beyond the next Senedd term. Rhodri handed over to Carwyn before the end of the term, Carwyn handed over to me before the end of the term. That is what I will plan to do.”

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