Are the men in grey suits coming for Leanne Wood?
Ifan Morgan Jones
This week and last has seen a slow drip, drip of news seemingly designed to soften up the Plaid Cymru membership for a leadership challenge in the next year.
Last week, the BBC was briefed anonymously that Leanne Wood considered resigning as the votes were counted during June’s General Election, something she denies.
On Tuesday AM Rhun ap Iorwerth, speaking at the National Eisteddfod in his own constituency of Ynys Môn, said that he would consider running for Plaid leader – but of course, there’s no vacancy.
On the same day an ‘anonymous’ Plaid AM also piped up, saying that Leanne Wood should stand down and that she had lost her authority in the group.
And today Simon Thomas AM has spoken out, saying that the party needed to “raise its game” – although, like Rhun ap Iorwerth, he insisted that it wasn’t a challenge to the leadership.
He did add, however, that it was “expected” that questions about the leadership would arise between elections.
All three AMs are experienced politicians and would know full well that, however much they would insist otherwise, even mentioning the leadership in such a way would lead to increased speculation.
If nothing else, it signals to the party membership that something is afoot and that they should also start thinking about who would be the best person to lead them into the next Assembly election.
Under the Plaid Cymru constitution, the leader must face election every two years. The next opportunity would be next year, so this would be a good time to start jockeying for position.
Rhun ap Iorwerth has already made his leadership ambitions clear. Simon Thomas stood in the 2012 leadership election before throwing his weight behind the current Llywydd, Elin Jones.
I would imagine that Neil McEvoy would also fancy his chances of an upset and taking the party in a radically different, more populist direction.
Adam Price AM, the Son of Destiny, could also be limbering up on the sidelines, ready to rip Excalibur from the stone once a few others have softened it up for him.
It’s inevitable that Leanne Wood’s position will come under pressure within the next few years. It’s worth remembering that she is the longest serving party leader amongst the main parties at Westminster.
Plaid Cymru have just come through three disappointing elections in a row. Apart from gaining the Rhondda at the Assembly and Ceredigion by a whisker in June, there has been very little to celebrate.
This year’s General Election suggested that Plaid Cymru are still knocking their heads against a brick wall in the post-industrial south-east valleys, where Leanne Wood should have the most appeal.
Worse still, they failed to capitalise on a period of Labour weakness, particularly at last year’s Assembly elections, which now seems to be over.
But it might not be that easy to unseat Leanne Wood. And it may not be that desirable either.
Leanne Wood has a lot of support within the party membership, and has made it clear that she has no intention of stepping down.
Moreover, it’s not clear that Leanne Wood herself is the problem for Plaid Cymru, but rather, in no particular order:
- A lack of a Welsh media (full stop) and in particular a media that is sympathetic to their cause
- Think tanks and other institutions that can lobby, fund initiatives and develop policy helpful to the party
- Sympathetic political groups that are not attached to Plaid Cymru but can do the hard work of changing people’s minds without fearing a loss of votes
The growth of alternative online media outlets and groups such as Yes Cymru suggests that this may be changing, albeit very slowly.
But there’s a long and winding road ahead, and it’s not clear how a different party leader could do anything to change that.
Also, we should remember that it’s the Assembly elections not General Elections which are the real test for the Plaid Cymru leadership.
Plaid are always in danger of being swept aside by the relentless focus on the two main UK parties at General Elections.
The real test for Leanne Wood will be if she can build on Plaid’s win in Rhondda in 2021 and take a few more valleys seats from Labour.
Would Rhun ap Iorwerth, Simon Thomas or Neil McEvoy really do a better job than popular, well-known, valleys born and bred Leanne Wood at leading that charge?
But with speculation growing – can Leanne Wood really hold out for another four years?