Why do people trust Mark Drakeford to handle coronavirus well but don’t want him to be First Minister?

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WalesOnline’s exclusive polling has thrown up one conundrum: people in Wales think highly of how the Welsh Labour government in Cardiff Bay has handled the pandemic; but the party is still heading for its worst Welsh election result ever.

In terms of how well people think they have handled the crisis, both the Welsh Government and Mark Drakeford are massively outperforming the UK Government and Boris Johnson.

Pollsters YouGov asked 1,004 people over the age of 16 in Wales to rate the respective governments and their leaders on how they had handled the pandemic. The options were Very Well; Fairly Well; Fairly Badly; Very Badly.

Some 54% thought Wales’ First Minister had dealt with coronavirus either well or very well – a full 18 percentage points more than thought favourably of Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

Sixty per cent also tought favourably of how the Welsh Government as a whole has handled coronavirus – a full 21 percentage points more than thought leaders in Westminster have handled the pandemic well or very well.

Bu this throws up a series of questions:

  • Why is Drakeford polling higher than Johnson?

  • Why is the UK Government polling lower than the Welsh Government when the two administrations have followed broadly similar policies to broadly similar outcomes?

  • Why, despite these high approval ratings does the poll also suggest that the Welsh Conservatives are going to make significant gains from Labour at the Senedd election in May?

The graph below shows comparison between the First Minister and the Prime Minister:

Taking those first two questions together why is Drakeford and the government he leads polling so far above the UK and Johnson in regard to Covid?

After all their handling of the crisis hasn’t been wildly different and both England and Wales have some of the worst death rates in the world.

Both became embroiled in the farce that was A-level and GCSE results. Both mismanaged the spike in cases in the autumn and winter with the Welsh Government acting early but not staying lockdown for long enough whereas the UK Government locked down for longer but later. Both failed to act decisively enough in the week leading up to Christmas with the Welsh Government banking on hospitality restrictions (which didn’t work) and the UK Government hardly acting at all.

Coming out of lockdown last summer the UK Government was criticised for being gung-ho in lifting restrictions whereas the Welsh Government was accused by some of being unnecessary slow and wasting time when people could have been enjoying some precious normality over the summer.

Before that both governments totally botched their handling of care homes in March and April last year, allowing patients to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without a coronavirus test.

At the very start of the pandemic both sides of the border saw chronic PPE shortages, shortfalls in testing and a slow move into lockdown which seemed oblivious to what was happening in Italy and Spain. Yes the UK Government was taking the lead at the time but it was the Welsh Government who allowed themselves to be led.

Wales was also criticised for being slower to act on several issues including priority supermarket deliveries for those shielding; allowing people living alone to form a support bubble; and setting up a website to allow people to volunteer.

So why is the Welsh Government’s response seen in more favourable terms?

It is likely to be a huge range of factors but a key part is presentation. The juxtaposition between the Welsh Government and UK Government press conferences have been stark. Whether you like what is being said or not there is no denying that Drakeford has generally been less evasive and more detailed focused than Johnson. The very set up of the respective press conferences shows contrasting attitudes towards scrutiny. For the first 10 weeks of the crisis journalists were able to ask two questions in both the UK and Welsh Government press conferences – giving them an opportunity to challenge or come back on points. After the Dominic Cummings saga at the end of May the UK Government restricted journalists to just one.

Drakeford by his very nature is very detail oriented, whereas Johnson is well known for preferring to be a showman rather than provide in depth explanation of the issue at hand. This means that when things have gone wrong, voters can at least see Drakeford’s workings.

Additionally there has been a series of controversies which are the UK Government’s alone including the aforementioned Cummings incident, the handing out of large government contracts to Conservative Party donors, issues around the Lighthouse testing labs (though the Welsh Government did sign up to these also) and issues around the lack of travel restrictions for people entering the UK.

The graph below shows comparison between the respective Governments:

What also can’t be ignored is the fact that a significant percentage of the Welsh population are politically inclined to be critical of the UK Government. According to the YouGov/WalesOnline poll, only around a quarter of eligible voters in Wales will vote Conservative in the Senedd election. It stands to reason therefore that people’s political leanings could affect how they perceive the performance of the relative administrations.

This has also played out in Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon has been roundly seen as performing well compared to Johnson despite limited divergence in terms of overall mortality rates. The SNP leader has proved very accomplished at pointing the finger south of the border during the crisis which has likely helped her polling performance.

Drakeford can not do this to the same extent as this would feed into the narrative often put forward by Plaid as well as going against his unionist instincts and desire for a four nation approach where possible. However the polling figures suggest that he is still receiving a bump from his occasional conflicts with Westminster over such issues as the UK Government refusing to restrict travel from areas of England with high virus rates. This perhaps explains the the fact 71% of Plaid Cymru voters believe he had handled the crisis well – slightly more than Labour voters (68%).

But this then all begs the questions of why this support for the Covid approach has not resulted in a bump for Labour in terms of predicted seats at the next election?

The poll suggests that Labour will have just 24 seats (down five from 2016) with 21 constituency seats and three regional. Although this projection should be treated with caution, based on a uniform national swing this would put the Tories on course to gain Vale of Glamorgan, Vale of Clwyd and Gower with Plaid also possibly taking Blaenau Gwent and Llanelli from Labour.

So if Drakeford is seen have handled the crisis better than Johnson and generally to have done well – then why is he being punished in the polls? This is hugely complicated with lots of moving parts but there are likely several factors at play.

First, there are lots of other things that have happened between 2016 and 2021. Just 15 months ago Labour was crushed in a General Election due more to a collapse in Labour support than a growth in Conservative. It is perfectly possible that the favourable perception of Drakeford and the Welsh Government’s handling of the crisis has prevented the polling numbers being far worse than they would otherwise have been.

Other reasons may also be found in the data which shows the age group where the Welsh Government and Drakeford are performing worst in regarding their handling of Covid is ages 16-24. Only 53% of under 24s think the Welsh Government has handled the crisis well and only 43% think Mark Drakeford has handled it well.

That contrasts with 73% of over 65s who think Mr Drakeford has handled it well. Given that most older voters are likely to skew Conservative then there is a possibility that perceived competence over Covid will actually not translate into votes at the ballot box as those who approve will not all vote Labour. This is of course not an exact science and needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Perhaps the strongest rationale behind this inability to turn Covid handling competency into votes is the fact that handling of the crisis doesn’t actually register high up on voters priorities. Most people want House of Lords reform but this doesn’t give the Lib dems huge majorities. Add to that the general fatigue people are experiencing and desire for anything that feels like a change then it is perfectly feasible that the Welsh Government’s strong polling on the Covid crisis will not translate into election success.

Our St David’s Day poll from YouGov covers issues including Brexit, this year’s Senedd elections, independence for Wales and coroanvirus.

Our political writers have also analysed some of the poll findings.



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