Ken Skates on imposter syndrome, stepping back and how the pandemic changed his priorities

Ken Skates MS
Ken Skates was first appointed as a deputy minister in 2011, but returned to the backbenches in May after the pandemic changed his priorities. Credit: ITV Wales

He was one of the most powerful men in Welsh politics, tasked with leading our economy through the pandemic and tipped to be a potential future first minister, but after May's election, Ken Skates surprised many by choosing to return to the backbenches.

It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. Speaking to Rob Osborne about his decision for the first time for tonight's Sharp End, Mr Skates described it as something that was 'carefully planned' and had been coming for some time.

"A lot of people didn't pick up on it, but it was my intention for a little bit of time before the election, to see it through to May and then to take time on the backbenches," he said.

"I don't regret it, it was carefully planned as well. It was a huge privilege and honour to serve Mark Drakeford and before Mark, Carwyn Jones, in government.

"I enjoyed all of those years, but it was time to step away, to reenergise, to refocus, to make space for new ideas and also priorities can change in life and I had to make sure that I was giving the people that mean the most to me more time.

"Particularly as a north Wales member, when you're distant away from family, constituents, friends, it can weigh very heavily on you in terms of guilt and remorse and about not being able to spend time with the people that matter most and so priorities change."

Ken Skates was Economy Minister when the Covid pandemic began. Credit: ITV Wales

Mr Skates was first elected in Clwyd South in 2011, joining the Welsh Government as deputy minister for skills and technology in 2013 and moving to be deputy minister for culture, sport and tourism in 2014.

In 2016, he took on the role of economy minister and was responsible for steering Wales' economy through the pandemic until he stepped away in May this year.

Making the decision has not only allowed him to spend more time in his north Wales constituency and with his family, but the 45-year-old says it has also made him realise that there is more he wants to do as a politician.

"When I was first elected back in 2011, I said to myself I'd never need to serve more than two terms," he continued.

"That would give me sufficient time to do what I wanted to do and I never expected to be in government at that point.

"Stepping away from government has made me realise that there's actually still a huge amount more that I want to do, particularly locally within Clwyd South and that's really fulfilling seeing the change you can make on the ground. I've realised that actually, two terms is not enough."

Future aspirations

He's also not ruled out returning to the front bench if the opportunity came back around, nor has he ruled out potentially putting his name forward to be first minister one day.

"If you were to say there was a vacancy right now, I'd say I wasn't the right person for the job right now because I'm focussing on other things.

"That's why I took the difficult decision to leave government and I would not then take the difficult decision to go back into government right now, even if it was for the top job.

"I think the vast majority of politicians have gone into this walk of life to make a difference.

"When those difficult decisions about whether to stay or to go, or whether to step up or to serve under a different leader come along, you have to put your ego to one side and ask yourself what is best for the people, what is best for my friends, family and what is best for me as well."

Ken Skates has represented Clwyd South since 2011 and admits he suffers from self-doubt when he's amongst colleagues in the Senedd chamber.

Speaking about his time as a minister, he admitted he does suffer from 'imposter syndrome' at times, particularly when he was in the Senedd chamber.

"I think a lot of people in politics have it. I'd often ask myself as I was walking towards a committee room to be scrutinised for an hour two, is this the last time i go into a committee because I'm going to mess up?

"I think it's born out of self-doubt and probably a lack of self-belief. You're carried through by a sense of purpose."

Mr Skates has previously spoken about his own mental health and anxiety and admitted that he would often sit in debates listening to colleagues and compare himself to them.

He also said that when he was offered his first role as deputy minister he asked then First Minister Carywn Jones whether he was sure?

When it comes to the relationship between politicians and how they're seen by the public, he says that there's an element of having to "let people in" to connect with them, or you risk being seen as a 'photo op'.

Ken Skates' career at a glance

"There's no doubt that if you're going to try to and connect with people you've got to let people in or you're seen as a photo op, you're seen as a soundbite or a bit of a political robot.

"To be perfectly honest that's how I was seen by quite a few people when I was in government.

"Some called me 'Photo Op Ken,' bit robotic, whatever. If I'd used social media more perhaps to show the character I am that would have counterbalanced it, but I had a job to do and it was the job that mattered most.

"Politics shouldn't be about promoting yourself as a personality, I think that's really quite vulgar. It's not 'I'm a Celebrity.' You're trying to lead people through desperate times often, and you should have no time for your own ego or vanity."

Being back on the backbench has meant less traveling down to Cardiff Bay, something he had to continue to do in the first year of the pandemic as economy minister.

Mr Skates believes that the hybrid way of working, allowing more MSs to work from their constituencies, could widen the appeal of the job for a broader group of people.

"If you had caring responsibilities and you were from outside the greater Cardiff area, you could not be an effective member of the Senedd, tragically.

"That excludes a huge amount of people that bring with them if elected real-life experiences that would lead to better policy, better delivery and a better country.

"I think remote working, virtual and hybrid forms of democratic participation of the Senedd will only enhance the collective mix of people that we have there.

"I think if we can sustain this, not just for this Senedd term, but for Senedd terms to come, I think we'll have a far more genuinely diverse set of people representing Wales and that can only be good for people and for politics and ultimately for the outcome of the Senedd and government itself."

Watch the full interview with Ken Skates on Tuesday's Sharp End at 10:45pm on ITV Cymru Wales