Polling shows our outgoing First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford to be easily the best-known of all four FMs since the Assembly was established in 1999. But we should acknowledge that as a pretty low bar.

It’s also a reminder to be careful what you wish for. As the new leader of Welsh Labour is announced this weekend, and (almost) de facto Wales’ new FM confirmed, it seems to me that there is a single shopping list of issues that has shaped the Drakeford score card.

The same topics that provided the FM with profile and popular support ultimately brought him the most stress and abuse, whilst precipitating a slalom slide in his popular support.

Equally, it was the same traits that made him skilled at dealing with the acute crisis of a pandemic – the paterfamilias with an unshakeable faith in hard evidence and his own good judgement – that became Mark Drakeford’s flaws once normal politics resumed.

On 20mph, agricultural subsidies, M4 relief road, Senedd reform, the FM has been happy to “show the workings” behind the decisions. Evidence-led policy as befits his background, often with worthy goals. But, like many academics, demonstrating an unwillingness to appreciate that the appeal of evidence depends on effective communication and is subject to interpretation and nuance.

So, as he hands over the political reins next week, here’s my stab at evaluating Drakeford’s five-year period at the helm. As he himself said when announcing his resignation just before Christmas, there will be plenty of time “to write my political obituaries”, and there will be.

True to form, the announcement was made half-way through this Senedd term. Mark Drakeford being, well, Mark Drakeford. Reliable and true to his word; precise; a stickler; honest and upfront; firm but fair; authoritative but stubborn; loyal but a loner. He was a self-admitted reluctant leader who, had there been stronger candidates, might have always stayed in the shadows rather than leading the troops.

There have been plenty of other descriptions of the outgoing FM. He’s a “clarinet-playing cricket fan”, “unflashy – a university professor” (I’d take issue with that one as there are plenty of dandy academics these days!), and less favourably, a scruffy, top button-undone, lefty former probation and youth worker, labelled “Dripford” as is the norm in the disrespectful and unpleasant social media climate these days.

There is some truth in all of those descriptions. Perspective and recency are everything after all, which is why the cumulative anger and spite towards Drakeford for Covid-restrictions, 20mph speed limits and farming subsidies will dominate many’s assessment of the FM.

Drakeford’s resignation announcement and the ensuing contest to find his replacement received a fraction of the coverage that the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation had last year – and not just because of the circumstances surrounding that. Mark Drakeford has been the quiet, unassuming, at times invisible figure in UK politics.

Until Covid, he was unknown to most in Wales, never mind elsewhere. Yet, not wishing to exaggerate but he managed to exert a quiet influence on wider UK politics in a way his predecessors didn’t. The unionist leader in increasingly important inter-governmental liaisons in which England had little stake or interest, and Scotland an active commitment to disrupt.

It is fitting that his final week in office saw him give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry as it is the pandemic that will define the Drakeford era – how could it be anything else? Half of his time as FM was occupied with the pandemic, longer if you include the still ongoing fallout. It robbed him of time to pursue the policies he really wanted to prioritise, but also provided a platform to demonstrate that Wales had its own government, could make its own decisions, could put people ahead of personal interests, all the while positing a calm and welcoming contrast to the omnishambles unfolding under Boris Johnson.

But a public stage invites a convincing performance with clear deliverables and outcomes. As is being revealed in the Covid-19 Inquiry’s time in Wales these past weeks, Covid outcomes here were no better than in England. And, the nuances and extent of difference will never be fully revealed thanks to the Welsh Government’s refusal to hold a separate Covid Inquiry for Wales.

Yes, there would be an inevitable cost involved, and there is an argument to say a UK-wide inquiry exemplifies the wider constitutional issues regarding pandemic handling, thus offering the best chance for future learning. But a Welsh inquiry would have afforded proper time and attention to the broad, complex and unique range of challenges here. As well as acknowledging that with power comes accountability, even more important, it would have showed proper respect for the many bereaved families seeking clarity and some closure.

The outgoing FM should be judged against more than a pandemic or a speed limit. Neither should we forget the human side. We shouldn’t need to say it but first and foremost, politicians should be regarded as humans. The pain of bereavement – in this case, losing his beloved wife, Clare so suddenly – naturally impacted enormously on the FM’s final year in office. It is almost unimaginable to consider coping with the raw intensity of grief alongside the practical business of running a country. The last year will have taken its toll on the health and well-being of our First Minister and we should be grateful that he has soldiered on in such tragic personal circumstances.

But politics being politics, evaluations will be made.

Let’s look at the successes first. Drakeford – probably by virtue of his handling of Covid – continued to steer the fantastically successful Labour election train. Most would acknowledge that the 2021 Senedd election would have been very different had it not been held during a pandemic at the zenith of the FM’s popularity. He drove Labour to a near majority-winning half of the 60 Senedd seats, then established a stable operating environment by agreeing a three-year, 46-policy framed co-operation agreement with Adam Price and Plaid Cymru. Essentially, this has made the Welsh Government’s programme impregnable as the two parties’ MSs comprise two-thirds of the Senedd’s MSs, giving not just a majority but a super majority should it be needed.

Sure, the Labour train pulled out of the 2021 station in a stronger position than ever. But election success is different to political success. Eventually, people simply get weary of the same party being in charge. That that time hasn’t come (yet) for Welsh Labour is as much down to it being a beneficiary of its opponents’ weaknesses than its own strengths. Most would agree that the new Welsh Labour leader will inherit a weary, divided party, unsure of its ideological USP, facing a very different UK-wide context where blame will be less easily laid at Westminster’s door, all the time hampered by a shell-like internal party structure in most parts of the country, including in its traditionally strongholds like the valleys.

The Telegraph’s Matthew Lynn’s offered his analysis of Drakeford’s reign: “Over his four years in power, Wales has been turned into a laboratory for the kind of half-baked policy ideas that don’t usually make it out of the seminar rooms of second-rate universities.”

But surely we want our politicians to try out new ideas and to offer fresh thinking? Yet, it remains an important question as to whether the Welsh Government actually has the tools to effect much in the way of serious, structural change where it really matters. The completely discredited Barnett formula penalises Wales, as does the undue financial controls, interference and restrictions placed on the Welsh Government by the Treasury, leaving scarcely any autonomy or space to drive potentially innovative pilots like on Universal Basic Income for care leavers, asylum seekers and employment, and the vacant land tax.

On matters constitutional, it looks likely that the FM will manage to drive the process of Senedd reform over the line. That’s no mean feat for a controversial policy that includes increasing the number of politicians, alongside a switch to a dreadful and ill-thought-out closed list electoral system. For all its failings, the Act would at long last put to bed an issue that has undermined the Senedd for all 25 years of its existence. Despite this, the incredible oversupply of local councillors for a nation our size remains unchallenged.

Let’s see what happens to the radical recommendations contained in the report from our Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, but the Welsh Government’s response to the report this week augurs well for a serious, front-foot debate.

The public can’t be expected to be particularly passionate about constitutional projects. Despite the obvious connection, other more pressing matters like the economy, health and education dominate. But look at performance in these areas: Wales’s GVA is 74% of UK average, Wales remains last but one out of the UK ‘regions’ in economic performance. Whilst offering only a partial perspective, the latest PISA rankings saw Wales registering the greatest drops in maths, science and reading of all the UK nations.

The NHS in Wales is in as much of a mess as elsewhere, some will say more so. One can argue about metrics and pockets of comparative success and failure, as well as highlighting the undisputed demographic and industrial challenges for our nation. But it is hard to generate much positivity or even optimism. We have record NHS waiting lists with nearly 5% of the Welsh population waiting for treatment and a disgruntled workforce not dissimilar to England’s. It would be easy to say five years is too short a period of assessment against such mighty structural problems, but the FM was a minister and a special advisor before, meaning his fingerprints are on almost all of the quarter century of devolved government decision-making.

One might ask how a Corbynite leftist managed to win over as many Plaid supporters and non-ideological folk, as many middle-class voters as traditional Labour voters? It’s a fair criticism to say Drakeford’s relationships with the private and business sectors were under-developed and immature, perhaps a consequence of his own political mindset. The next FM should not assume that the public sector is better in every policy sphere or in every instance or we will continue to eschew some of the key drivers for the necessary economic improvement.

There is no doubting Mark Drakeford’s values, nor his intellect. In my dealings with him, I also found him kind and considerate, principled, supportive and funny. But, of course, those are not the primary metrics against which we judge our leaders. We always find it easier to praise our political leaders once they’ve left office. The paeans of praise for former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, last week as she announced her departure from the Commons were generous for a leader who actually achieved little and opened the flood gates for what followed.

There’s an important difference between being a great leader and being a fine public servant. Leadership requires additional, complementary skills that are relatively rare. Comparisons with other leaders have limited value. Was Drakeford a ‘stronger’ leader than Rhodri or Carwyn? Was he ‘better’ than Boris, Truss, or Sunak? At the end of the day, it matters little. Leadership is performative and we’ve had a shy, retiring FM who largely refused to engage in any demonstrative or overt showmanship despite his tenure being punctuated by a series of unique crises. Still, as he departs, a reminder that in most recent polling, and excluding ‘don’t knows’, Mark Drakeford remains more popular than all of the other Welsh party leaders.

There is too much still in train to offer a definitive analysis of Mark Drakeford’s time as FM. That can wait until 2026 but, for now, we could do worse than remember the human side of politics and hope that, after a tenure that could scarcely have been more personally and politically challenging, the departing FM enjoys more time at his allotment, and watching the WNO and Glamorgan cricket.

* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of Wales Women’s international football team.