March 17, 2024 - 1:00pm

One remarkable thing about the contest to succeed Mark Drakeford as First Minister of Wales is that it was between two continuity candidates. Neither Vaughan Gething, the eventual victor, nor Jeremy Miles found much to criticise in Drakeford’s record or any reason to promise radical change.

This is a level of complacency that exceeds even the SNP, which at least pitted Humza Yousaf against Kate Forbes, a party outsider with a substantive critique of the Scottish Government’s policies and direction.

Of course, one reason the two Labour contenders may have been disinclined to criticise the Welsh Government’s record is that both have been deeply implicated in it. Gething, as health minister during the pandemic, has been widely criticised for contriving to lose his WhatsApp messages.

Meanwhile Miles, at Education, presided over the latest chapter in the precipitous decline of Welsh school performance since 1998. Not that you’d know it from his campaign: his five pledges wisely steered clear of the whole subject of his ministerial portfolio.

With no major disputes on policy, it has fallen to scandal to enliven the race as best it can.

There were allegations from Miles’s campaign of an old-fashioned trades union stitch-up by Unite. More seriously, in the closing weeks Gething came under pressure for having accepted £200,000 in donations from a company convicted of illegally dumping waste — having previously lobbied regulators on its behalf.

Such small-time sleaze was not enough to cost him the race, although in the end it was a close call. But the scandal, and the rest of the campaign, probably gives more insight into what the next few years portend for Wales than the wafer-thin contents of either candidate’s campaigns.

Labour has no ideas. But if Drakeford taught his successor anything, it must surely be that basically nothing can topple the party. The woeful performance of schools, hospitals, and other devolved services hasn’t brought Labour down yet, and there is no guarantee that it will.

Moreover, while it wasn’t enough to cost him the race, Gething still assumes office under the cloud of the donation scandal. According to one former Welsh minister: “He will be in the weakest position of any Welsh Labour leader since Alun Michael 25 years ago”, and “Welsh Labour’s image has been seriously undermined.”

Add to that the widespread perception that he was Keir Starmer’s preferred candidate, and thus presumably won’t be inclined to pick too many fights with Westminster if Labour win power nationally, and the chances of Gething doing anything to adjust the decaying trajectory of Wales under Drakeford seem remote.

The question is whether anything will come of it. As Yousaf is learning in Scotland, time catches up with even the most effective political machines eventually — especially when the reins pass to a new leader who lacks the skill and charisma that have kept the rickety show on the road for so long.

Labour retains many advantages, not least an efficiently-concentrated South Walian vote and an electorate much more likely to actually turn out for devolved elections than the Conservatives’.

Nonetheless, there is some hope that this sleazy episode may, in time, prove to have been a turn in the road for Wales. The question is: where to?

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.