Following the leader?

Party conferences can be a place of contemplation and self-reflection and after a stream of elections and with no other imminent elections or referenda (for the moment) on the political horizon, Plaid Cymru couldn’t avoid the usual election post-mortem at their Annual Conference in Caernarfon last weekend. Their performance earlier this year was the central discussion point.

However, even out of election-mode the Plaid Cymru spin machine continues on its steady cycle with prominent party members hailing the General Election a great success as they returned their highest number of MPs yet and gained more councillors in local elections. And, given the two-party focus of the election, the gain of Ceredigion, taking them to 4 MPs, shouldn’t be dismissed. But that isn’t the whole story. The overall decline in their vote share can’t be dismissed. Whilst the outcome was heralded internally as a remarkable result for the party, it was also a very near miss in some of Plaid’s strongholds, with Arfon only being held under one hundred votes. 

With such mixed returns, an inevitable part of that post-match analysis must be about the person that led the party in that election. The focus of the media on Leanne Wood leadership of the party at the expense of much of anything else at the conference however was clearly a cause of frustration for the party. Whilst the media focus on this may arguably have been excessive – with every report picking on some slight or division related to the leadership - it shouldn’t take away from the fact that questioning a party’s leadership after such an election result is reasonable. 

The other unwanted but inescapable theme at conference was the appearance of estranged son Neil McEvoy. The former member of the Plaid Cymru group rocked up in full conciliation mode, seeking to rebuild bridges in the hope of being readmitted to the cosy club. This more subdued version of the Cardiff councillor and Assembly Member was quite clearly intended to be seen and noted. But his presence at a conference he was fully entitled to attend as an ordinary Plaid Cymru member also illuminated his fall out with the rest of the Assembly group. This again brought the focus back to the diminished size of the group and the relationship between McEvoy and the party leader.

Leanne Wood didn’t shy away from her critics however, using her conference speech to clearly set her stall as Plaid Cymru candidate for First Minister in the 2021 Assembly election. An unfortunate consequence of the attention on her leadership was that it overshadowed one of the meatier conference speeches she’s delivered. Free of the pressures of an imminent election, the speech included fewer soundbites and a generally more relaxed delivery. But unfortunately for Leanne the media already had their two stories and were running with them. In Caernarfon, Plaid was following the news agenda, not leading it.