The race to be First Minister

Head of Public Affairs, Craig Lawton, takes a look at the First Minister contenders. 27th September 2023


When Mark Drakeford became First Minister in 2018, he announced his intention to step down mid-way through this current Senedd term.

Whether intended or not, his comments have seen those close to Welsh politics spend the last four-and-a-half years analysing the moves of each of his possible successors.

Some of the challenges dealt with by Welsh Ministers were expected, such as the Brexit transition. Others – like Covid-19, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine – were unlikely to be on Mark Drakeford’s radar as he formed his first cabinet in December 2018.

These challenges have provided opportunities to understand how the contenders might set out their stalls once the formal selection process for the most hotly contended role in Welsh politics begins.

With the pandemic invading our lives in early 2020, the Health Minister at the time – MS for Cardiff South & Penarth, Vaughan Gething – saw his profile increase significantly, as he filled our news screens on a weekly basis.

Opponents will highlight several reasons why he might not be fit to fill the shoes of the First Minister. Firstly his handling of the pandemic was deemed less than ideal, and a number of mishaps in recent years – including his criticism of a fellow Welsh Labour MS being broadcast after he failed to mute his microphone. But supporters will highlight that Vaughan has not shied away from making difficult and important decisions during his decade in Welsh Government, which many would argue demonstrate his strength, courage, and determination.

Now holding the role of Economy Minister, the man who finished second behind Mark Drakeford will be expected to throw his hat into the ring once more.

Finishing third in 2018 was Eluned Morgan. While her promotion to Health Minister after Gething saw her hotly tipped to run once again, a combination of a driving ban due to speeding, paired with allegations that the troubled Betsi Cadwalladr health board signed off several false documents, have seen significant pressure placed on Morgan more recently.

Having previously worked as an MEP and in high level roles in the House of Lords, Morgan remains highly influential within Welsh Labour. Whether she ultimately runs or not, she could well have an impact on the contest.

Should Eluned Morgan not run, there will be pressure to ensure there is a woman on the ballot. Elected in 2016, Delyn MS Hannah Blythyn entered Welsh Government just two years later before being promoted to Deputy Minister for Social Partnership in 2021. Despite this being a deputy role, Blythyn was tasked with steering the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act- Mark Drakeford’s flagship piece of legislation – through the Senedd and into the statute books.

The first openly lesbian MS and Welsh Government cabinet member, Blythyn will likely be able to call on significant support from Welsh Labour affiliate groups and trade unions- such as LGBT+ Labour and the Labour Women’s Network. These are critical to getting on the ballot. She can also speak for North Wales in a contest which, over the last twenty years, has had a strong Glamorgan flavour to it.

The prospects of Neath MS Jeremy Miles being a genuine contender have continued to grow since he was elected in 2016.

Holding heavy-weight portfolios in the cabinets of Drakeford and his predecessor Carwyn Jones, Miles can point to his work as legal advisor to Welsh Government, and on Brexit transition and pandemic recovery, to demonstrate he is ready to lead.

One of three LGBT+ MSs, Miles’ current role as Education Minister has seen him stand firm against legal challenges to new education guidance. But his delay to the introduction of the new curriculum to September 2022 means we are only just starting to see the outcome from that transition. Expect these decisive actions to be relied upon if, and when, Miles enters the race.

Expect other names to be proposed and debated in the coming months as well, including Julie James, Rebecca Evans, and Mick Antoniw, while there will again be calls for former Economy Minister Ken Skates to run.

Once Mark Drakeford sets his departure date, Welsh Labour will detail the process to get on the ballot. Previously, candidates needed backing from Welsh Labour MSs and MPs, trade unions and affiliate groups, and constituency Labour Party before members voted in a month-long postal and email ballot.

With little news from Mark Drakeford on when he plans to leave the post, we are also left waiting on when the formal race to become the next First Minister will begin.

Until the gauntlets are officially raised, let the auditions and debating continue.