Mark Drakeford has accused Boris Johnson of being “neglectful” of the relationship between the UK government and the devolved nations and declared that the “greatest threat to the union comes from the so-called unionists”.
Joined by Gordon Brown in an online event this morning, the First Minister told Labour members that the relationship between the Welsh and UK governments has deteriorated during Johnson’s time in No 10.
The Welsh Labour leader criticised the Tories’ handling of the pandemic, arguing that it had caused people to increasingly question whether independence is best, and slammed the Conservatives “hostility” towards the principle of devolution.
Asked this morning about relations between his Welsh Labour administration and the Conservative Westminster government in the Covid crisis, Drakeford said: “The way the UK has operated in the pandemic has been a ‘wing and a prayer’.
“The Prime Minister calls us together randomly, at short notice, with very little preparation and then nothing happens for week after week, after week…
“The underpinning of the UK has been so neglected by this government. The pinnacle of intergovernmental relations is meant to be the joint ministerial committee [JMC]. It hasn’t met once.
“Not a single time in the whole premiership of Boris Johnson. Now Mrs May… she was a careful attender to intergovernmental relations…
“Johnson is just neglectful and I seriously believe that the greatest threat to the union comes from the so-called unionists, because they just will not put the time, the effort, the hard work that needs to be put into making the UK come together.”
The JMC is a set of committees made up of ministers from the UK and devolved governments to enable coordination across the union. The body was created at the start of devolution in 1999 and is chaired by the Prime Minister.
Drakeford added: “The fact that in the crisis people in Wales have felt that their government has been on their side… is leading people to ask the question: is it worth continuing to be in the UK? Particularly when it is led in the way it is currently led.”
But the Welsh Labour leader insisted that this is just a “first reaction” for Welsh voters at the moment and argued that Labour can explain to people the benefits they get from the devolved nation remaining a part of the union.
On independence, he explained: “This is why I’ve always been a socialist not a nationalist… Nationalism is both an inherently right-wing ideology and puts the accident of birth above the alliances that working people have across borders.
“I didn’t want Wales to leave the EU. I don’t want Wales to leave the union that is the UK, because in the end working people in Wales have more things in common with working people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England…
“You just have to sometimes remind people of that. And that is the work of the labour movement and the Labour Party, to make sure we take power at a UK level to begin to make the case for the UK in that way again.”
Drakeford told the meeting that he was in favour of strengthening devolution and said to participants that he was supportive of a “quasi-federalist” political structure for the UK. He also described the “hostility” of the Tories to devolution.
He said: “Scratch the surface of the Tory Party and you’ll find their hostility to devolution not very far from that surface. Many, many of them think that it was a terrible mistake and that the way to overcome it is to reassert the primacy of Westminster.”
Brown also slammed the current Conservative government for its approach to the devolved nation throughout the coronavirus pandemic, telling the virtual meeting today that there is a “huge amount of frustration with what’s happening”.
He added: “The union has become disfunctional in the way that the present government is administering it… You’ve got to have mechanisms for joint working – they’ve all broken down.
“They’ve got to be repaired and we’ve got to have a means by which – particularly on this internal market bill related to the EU – people feel they are being listened to, their voices are being heard and they influence decisions.”
The controversial internal market, which makes arrangements for trade within the UK after the country leaves the EU, passed its third reading in the Commons last month despite containing provisions that break international law.
The Welsh Labour government has opposed the bill arguing that it will take powers away from Wales, such as over animal welfare regulation and food standards, in a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement.
Former Labour Prime Minister Brown declared that the there needs to be “some inclusivity at the centre” and argued that the UK government must not just be a “South East clique, run by a few old Etonians and their friends”.
The comments today followed an announcement by the Welsh First Minister on Wednesday of restrictions for people travelling to Wales from Covid hotpots in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Following rejected requests from Drakeford for the Prime Minister to stop people coming into the devolved nation from areas with high prevalences of the virus, he declared that he would use devolved powers to implement the ban.
Drakeford last month also joined with Brown and other Labour representatives from across the UK to form the Alliance for Full Employment in anticipation of a major jobs crisis as furlough is withdrawn at the end of October.
The Alliance of Labour figures also includes Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram, North of Tyne’s Jamie Driscoll, South Yorkshire’s Dan Jarvis and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees.
The event this morning formed part of the Welsh Labour Together conference. The party is running a programme of online meetings to replace its usual annual gathering, which was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Drakeford launched the conference on Thursday in a Q&A with members, discussing the internal market bill, holiday hunger and the transition to a green economy, as well as his support for a basic income and relationship with Keir Starmer.