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Opinion

Who wants the poisoned chalice of the Plaid leadership now that Adam Price has quit?

11 May 2023 8 minute read
Elin Jones, Siân Gwenllian, Delyth Jewell, Llŷr Gruffydd and Rhun ap Iorwerth

Martin Shipton

As poisoned chalices go, few could be more toxic at present than taking on the challenge of leading Plaid Cymru.

There were immensely high hopes for Adam Price when he won the last leadership election in 2018.

In winning the contest he humiliated his predecessor Leanne Wood, who despite seeking re-election was pushed into third place behind Mr Price and Rhun ap Iorwerth, a former BBC journalist who now represents Ynys Môn at the Senedd.

Ms Wood herself had been seen as an outsider when she surprisingly became leader in 2012 at a time when Plaid Cymru was once again in the doldrums after performing poorly in the previous year’s election and being ejected from government after serving in a coalition with Labour.

Ms Wood, as Plaid’s first leader who wasn’t a fluent Welsh speaker, was initially seen as someone who could finally act as the catalyst required by the party to supplant Labour in the Valleys.

But she didn’t live up to her early promise, with critics accusing her of devoting too much energy to niche issues rather than devising a credible plan to improve Wales’ economy that would appeal to the wider electorate.

Freedom

The party’s MPs were also scathing about her apparent inability to offer leadership over how to negotiate the Westminster stalemate over Brexit.

Mr Price had long been seen by many in Plaid as the party’s greatest hope, who really would be able to take Wales forward to independence.

He had charisma, was an eloquent and persuasive speaker – a talent he had learned as a young lay preacher in his native Carmarthenshire – and was able to inspire his audience to believe that he could lead Wales to its freedom.

Sometimes he went over the top – like the occasion when he described posting his referendum ballot paper from Boston while he was a student at Harvard as if it was a momentous event of historic significance – but it was all part of the theatricality he used to enthuse party members who had suffered countless disappointments over the years.

In the run-up to his election as leader, he set out a plan to take Wales to independence in little more than a decade. The first task was to lead a government after the 2021 Senedd election, then to prove that such a government could make Wales a better place, then to win a second term in 2026 and before the election after that to persuade a majority to vote for independence.

It was always, in truth, a tall order, but one that Mr Price, at least initially, gave the impression that he passionately believed was achievable.

For the well-meaning idealists who formed the core of the party’s membership, he was the real deal. What made his vision so compelling was that, as a trained economist, he went beyond romantic nationalist rhetoric and set out some innovative policies aimed at improving Wales’ prosperity.

Reassurance

He was doubtless helped in this by the fact that the home patch where he was brought up straddled the borderland between rural and industrial Wales.

To get his messages across to a wider audience, Mr Price courted the London media, of which he’d had experience as an MP years before, writing op-ed pieces for the Sunday Times and persuading network TV programmes to invite his participation.

He did so in the knowledge that many people in Wales pay less attention to Welsh media than one would like them to.

But then the plan went adrift. To a large extent he was thrown off course by Covid. First Minister Mark Drakeford, who took office three months after Mr Price became the leader of Plaid, was at first seen by many as too lacking in charisma for his role, coming across as a professor rather than as a politician.

Yet with his daily TV appearances at a lectern during the pandemic, he encapsulated for most in Wales the epitome of reassurance, in contrast to the bumbling insincerity of Boris Johnson.

That’s not to say that mistakes weren’t made in Wales – of course they were – but the perception was in Mr Drakeford’s favour, with Adam Price as good as airbrushed from the scene.

But Mr Price’s decline is about more than Covid. As time went on, there were fewer inspirational speeches, less pungency to his performances at First Minister’s Questions and an increasing sense that he was sometimes just going through the motions.

The 2021 election was, yet again, a huge disappointment for Plaid Cymru. Instead of moving forwards, it was confirmed as the third party of Wales behind the Conservatives.

Ms Wood lost her seat in Rhondda and the dream of making inroads in the Valleys came to nothing again. To add insult to injury, not even Mr Price’s Plan B was a runner.

Plan B would have entailed entering a coalition with Labour on a genuinely equal footing, preferably with Mr Price as First Minister for half the term like the alternating Taoiseachs in Ireland.

Such an outcome would have given Plaid a powerful influence over the Welsh Government’s policy agenda. This was seen as a plausible outcome, but after the votes were counted the maths didn’t stack up and Labour was able to govern alone.

Plaid negotiated a cooperation agreement with Labour, but the party had no ministers and the policy areas covered were limited. Many of those voters who took an interest found the ambiguity puzzling.

Fester

Instead of striding forwards with his team towards independence, therefore, Mr Price found himself stuck in opposition for another five years. It hasn’t been difficult to discern that he’s not been enjoying himself.

The poor election result has allowed bitternesses to fester, Leanne Wood has never really come to terms with her defeat by Mr Price in the 2018 leadership election.

Her supporters, who effectively control the party’s national executive committee, haven’t made life easy for him. Some of the grassroots “Leannistas” have not been shy about expressing schadenfreude over Mr Price’s plight in recent days.

But overshadowing all of this has been a succession of allegations made by people in the party that there has been a toxic culture where sexual harassment and bullying has effectively been tolerated.

The damning report from former Assembly Member Nerys Evans made Adam Price’s position untenable. It’s probably fruitless to speculate whether this point would have been reached if Plaid had made a triumphant return to government in 2021.

The challenge facing whoever becomes the new leader is truly Herculean. The party’s reputation has been dragged through the mud and detoxifying it will not be easy.

No wonder none of its MSs seem to be chomping at the bit to step into Mr Price’s shoes. The old adage that people within political parties hate each other more than they hate their opponents has come into its own in Plaid Cymru.

Yet there are many loyal party members far away from the machinations of Cardiff Bay who feel bewildered at what has been going on.

Things won’t get better for Plaid until the sexual harassment, the bullying and the factional manoeuvring – all of which are elements of the same toxic culture – come to an end.

Next leader

It will be interesting to see who comes forward to stand as leader – a post that can only be held by a Senedd Member.

Rhun ap Iorwerth, the runner-up last time, might seem the obvious successor, except that he wants to go to Westminster and has been selected to stand for Ynys Môn, the seat he currently holds at the Senedd, at the general election.

How susceptible might he be to arm twisting in his party’s hour of need?

Some have mentioned Elin Jones, currently serving her second term as Presiding Officer. But she was a losing candidate in 2012 and may well consider it madness to relinquish her current role for what in comparison would surely be a nightmare posting.

Two other MSs – Siân Gwenllian and Llŷr Gruffydd – have been at the Senedd for seven and 12 years respectively, giving them the advantage of having some experience. It’s fair to say, though, that neither has been touted as a serious leadership contender in the past.

Six of the remaining Plaid MSs were first elected as recently as two years ago. None of them, at least for the time being, look like leaders.

The one remaining MS in the Plaid group is Delyth Jewell, who joined the Senedd after the tragic death from cancer of Steffan Lewis.

Ms Jewell has been spoken of as a potential leader and a senior Labour politician once commented, for what it’s worth, that a Plaid Cymru led by her could possibly pose a genuine challenge to Labour.

Eradicating the toxic culture is an urgent priority for whoever becomes the new leader, but that won’t in itself win elections.

Politicians should be ambitious for their party and their country.

Do any of Plaid Cymru’s potential leaders have the vision to pull it out of its current troubles? For the moment that remains an unanswered question.


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Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
9 months ago

What the party needs now is stability and a period of reflection. Reflection on how to clean up its act and then a different plan towards independence. This obviously begins with the election of a new leader. From the candidates mentioned I would quite like Delyth Jewell as leader.

CJPh
CJPh
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

So an internal issue in one political party in Wales necessitates altering the “plan towards independence”? How does that track?

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
9 months ago
Reply to  CJPh

The ‘different plan towards independence’ isn’t related. I thought I’d tag it on as the party is hardly making huge gains politically, at the moment is it.

CJPh
CJPh
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

Maybe that’s always been the issue. Independence, mechanisms rather than proposals, constitution building rather than policy promises and idealism rather than ideology has always been tagged on. If there at all. The only colonial mindset in the post colonial era is in the minds of the colonised, desperately trying to effect changes within a long dead system. Westminster politics is not only hopelessly corrupt, but uninspiring and boring. Welsh politics is like the bargain basement version of that already shoddy product.

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
9 months ago
Reply to  CJPh

I disagree with “The only colonial mindset in the post colonial era is in the minds of the colonised”. The way Westminster treats Wales is still very much like how it’s treated Wales over the centuries, not a lot has changed – certainly when it comes down to financial issues. It is understandable why some people in Wales are still using the word colonialism – because technically we are still a colonialised country. Just because it happened centuries ago does not change anything. We did not give our consent to being conquered by Edward l or being incorporated into England… Read more »

Marc Evans
Marc Evans
9 months ago

Outstandingly perceptive analysis from Martin Shipton and lucidly written. The Leanne faction have done great harm to PC, from Llanelli to Cardiff West, and the rest. I was one of those dedicated and principled volunteers for almost half a century. After being made collateral damage in a centrally run unprincipled attack on fellow members, I resigned. I thought Adam would be committed to supporting integrity and a flourishing of original thinking – but murky machinations and polit bureau group-think infected the whole body. It seems unlikely to me that PC can purge this without the sort of inspiring vision and… Read more »

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
9 months ago
Reply to  Marc Evans

Leanne was ousted by Adam’s supporters in a ruthless coup 5 years ago – attempting to pin the blame on her for plaid’s current troubles is simply not credible Marc.

Gill
Gill
9 months ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

It is true. Those of us who experienced it know. I left Plaid after the double dealing at Llanelli but was hopeful when Adam returned..but he never got a grip. Shame he was so good prior to this. Leanne was awful and her oratory skills lack lustre to say the least. Anyway hope Adam gets his mojo back. He has a lot to contribute. Leigh bach if you want to be a leader you have to be ruthless… Adam can make a great contribution again unlike Leanne who seems to think selfies of her swimming will ignite a revolution

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
9 months ago

A forthright – withering even – analysis from Martin (and we would expect nothing less from him) but whoever is elected the new plaid leader later in the year needs to be someone who is known to the welsh public and who has real strength of character. Their number one task is going to have to be ensuring the recommendations in Nerys Evans’ report are followed thru and that the toxic bullying misogynistic culture revealed in the report is changed. And at the same time the new leader must ensure plaid presents itself as a alternative govt in Wales to… Read more »

Phil Egan
Phil Egan
9 months ago

Forgive my ignorance, but why does running for Westminster preclude Rhun ap Iorwerth from running for leader?

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil Egan

Under plaid’s rules the party leader has to be a member of the Senedd Phil

Phil Egan
Phil Egan
9 months ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Thanks.

Riki
Riki
9 months ago

Oh how we love to self destruct. Does any other people do it as well as the Britons?

Glen
Glen
9 months ago

Whoever the new leader is let us hope he/she has a little more ambition than just being Labour’s little helpers, like the last pair.

Iago Prydderch
Iago Prydderch
9 months ago

For a lengthy article not one bully or misogynist was named. Any of the potential leadership candidates could be one therefore unless they are named why should any member vote for a new leader!

Daf
Daf
9 months ago

Adam Price had a reputation for not dealing with ‘the little people’ (ie party rank and file) as leader. I was reminded of that when Karl Davies, ex Plaid Chair, said this morning on Radio Wales that before 1999, the party belonged to the membership. Since 1999, it has come to belong to the members in the Senedd, and their staff in the Senedd. There is a real lesson here to be learned, by whoever steps up as next Leader. SPADS thinking that pushing issues like gender recognition reform will win votes were wrong (and were wrong before this issue… Read more »

Daf
Daf
9 months ago

I have never understood those claiming that Adam Price was a charismatic and eloquent speaker. He sounded longwinded and blustery in interviews, irritable when challenged, and unmemorable. Put alongside political stars of Westminster and Holyrood, he stood out like a grumpy thumb. I remember being told in 2018 that he ‘knew how Westminster worked’. Did he? What does Plaid have to show for that? To be fair to Price, I think too many in Plaid were a bit dazzled by the fact he’d been ‘away’. To Harvard, and to Westminster. This article has a bit of that misplaced awe. He… Read more »

Andy Williams
9 months ago

Best potential leader I’ve seen Liz Saville Roberts.

Brian Stephenson
Brian Stephenson
9 months ago
Reply to  Andy Williams

She is English.
Is that correct?

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