Time is ticking away – will one of Leanne Wood’s generals challenge her for the leadership?

Leanne Wood, Rhun ap Iorwerth and Adam price. Pictures by the National Assembly (CC 2.0)

Guto Harri

Integrity is a great asset in any politician and Leanne Wood has lots of it.

“What you see is what you get”, has become a catch line with a twist: “No veneer, no varnish, just Wood”.

Walk around her valleys’ constituency and you’ll be astonished by the affection.

Elsewhere, she’s often knocked for her accent and mocked for her passion for an impoverished area largely left behind by politics and business.

But she has fought hard to raise its concerns and put its people on the map. She also had the guts to abandon a safe top-up seat to take Rhondda past the post from Labour in the last election to the Welsh Senedd – a milestone moment in Welsh politics.

But fighting for the Rhondda is not the same as leading Wales, and six years into her leadership of Plaid Cymru, many within her ranks fear she is holding them back.

At a recent offsite for her Assembly team, virtually everyone present – including a close and critical colleague – told her bluntly it was time to go.

A seasoned elder statesman complains that the party has not advanced in local, Welsh nor Westminster elections since she took the helm. In an interview for a new series of podcasts for Radio Cymru, Elfyn Llwyd says bluntly that very little has been achieved over the last seven years.

The situation – he says – is not healthy. He points out that there is plenty of talent among the ranks and makes it clear that a new leader should be given a chance.

Elfyn Llwyd is equally blunt in an interview for Byd yn ei Le on S4C tonight at 9.30, and the programme has uncovered a number of disillusioned activists who are increasingly desperate for Leanne to leave.

The party is in turmoil, but a week before the official deadline for nominations a contest now seems inevitable.

Stagnation

Who leads Plaid matters because the party is the most serious threat in Wales to perpetual Labour rule. Sadly – as a growing number of Plaid supporters see it – they’re not enough of a threat.

Plaid made no progress in the Westminster battle of 2015 and last year’s general election was grim. The party took one extra seat, but nearly lost its long-standing fortress in Caernarfon and landed third in their top target, Llanelli.

Stagnation has hit despite unprecedented publicity for Leanne Wood as the Plaid leader thanks to a formula for the tv debates that has made her part of the British political furniture.

And she’s been up against a tired Labour administration in Cardiff where the leader is about to leave the scene.

Perpetual one-party rule cannot be good for anyone. Wise Labour figures acknowledge that, but the party of Bevan, Callaghan and Kinnock have led the Welsh Assembly since its formation in 1998, and largely dominated the country’s politics since Keir Hardy became the party’s first MP in Merthyr more than a century ago.

And with Plaid Cymru treading water, there’s little incentive on Labour to refresh and reinvigorate, not to mention inject some energy and vision into their administration at Cardiff Bay.

The favourite to succeed the retiring Carwyn Jones is the man who, to all effective purposes, has been his deputy, and involved in most of the key decisions since devolution took off.

Mark Drakeford – by all accounts – is a lovely man, but he’s 63, deeply tribal and an enthusiastic backer of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour contest, however, could take off and then there would be some interesting options.

Vaughan Gethin is the 44-year-old solicitor son of a Zambian immigrant. Jeremy Miles is clever, dapper, charming and on the list of top forty most influential list of gay people in Wales.

Then there’s the youthful, gutsy Eluned Morgan who was youngest MEP in Strasbourg when first elected and now sits in the Lords as well as the Senedd. Any one of them could make the Plaid leader look stale.

Consolidation

So why cling on? This is where Plaid members – like any blended family with different geographies, cultures, outlook and linguistic preferences – whisper tortuously about conflicting loyalties.

They genuinely recoil at the idea of toppling their own leader, but are equally adamant that without a coup they are condemned to be no more than a loud, chippy pressure group for whichever progressive cause captures Leanne’s imagination from one month to the next.

She’s a “permanent rebel”, one tells me, “preaching only to the converted”. Another says her focus is tragically on “an ever-receding inner circle”.

Yet like Jeremy Corbyn, Leanne’s leadership has some momentum. Critics complain that disillusioned deserters one the hard left are being signed-up en masse to give Leanne Wood a personal power base to use against her elected colleagues in Cardiff and Westminster.

One fierce critic points out how much better she is at internal fights than winning the elections that count.

Key to her Corbyn-esqe consolidation is her total opposition to any co-operation with Conservatives.

It’s a powerful ploy in former mining communities but it’s also cheap and strategically insane as the only realistic prospect Plaid Cymru have of running Wales is in a coalition with the Tories.

That’s the scenario envisaged in the Welsh political drama “Byw Celwydd” (Living a lie) that has recently been bought by the US and Canadian broadcaster MHz Networks.

North American viewers will soon see the Welsh Assembly run by a charismatic female First Minister heading a nationalist coalition with conservative support.

But with Leanne Wood at the helm the prospect will remain in the realms of fiction or fantasy.

Fear

So, will the generals rebel? Two men are under considerable pressure to challenge, Rhun ap Iorwerth, and Adam Price. Both have the backing of their local branches for a nomination, but are yet to decide which one makes the hit.

One is articulate, telegenic and – some say – a natural leader. Supporters of the other claims he has more depth, determination and strategic vision.

Comparisons with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown come easy among colleagues who are desperately urging them to strike a Granita-style deal on who will stand.

Both apparently fear that he who wields the knife will not inherit the crown and thus needs assurances that the eventual victor won’t take all the spoils.

Time is ticking, and even gung-ho lieutenants seem hesitant. But if July 4th passes without a challenge to Leanne Wood, one figure in the centre of the fray has no doubt that morale will be crushed and the elected ranks of Plaid Cymru will go into mass depression.

You can watch Y Byd yn ei Le tonight, Tuesday 12 June 9.30 on S4C, or on demand on s4c.cymru, BBC iPlayer and other platforms. English subtitles are available.

A version of this article appeared in the Welsh edition of The Sunday Times on the 24th June.

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