‘The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead.’
So said Churchill about the career of Lord Curzon. But these words could also summarise the leadership of Plaid Cymru by Leanne Wood – a leadership that came to an abrupt and rather humiliating end on Friday.
Most observers of politics outside Wales, and plenty of people even within Wales, only really became aware of Leanne Wood after the televised leaders’ debates during the 2015 general election. By that point, she had actually been leader of her party for more than three years. Wood was a surprise leader – even to herself. First elected to the Welsh Assembly in 2003, she was probably best known for being booted out of the chamber for referring to the Queen as ‘Mrs Windsor’. During Plaid Cymru’s four years as an Assembly coalition partner to Labour from 2007-11, Wood was never one of Plaid’s government ministers. Although widely liked, politically she was a marginalised figure, regarded as too radical for the party leadership.
When Plaid sought a new leader in 2011, Wood publicly hesitated over whether or not to stand; even when she did throw her hat into the ring, she rather disarmingly admitted to doubts over whether she could win. Yet win she did, promising a new and more radical direction for a party that looked north to the growing success of the SNP with undisguised envy.
Yet after the glory of an unexpected leadership victory, harder realities soon hit home. Like Jeremy Corbyn some years later, Wood found that years as an obscure backbencher are a less than perfect preparation for the challenges of leadership. She made efforts to polish her image, but her speech making and interview technique also needed plenty of work. As the leader of only the third party in the Welsh Assembly, Wood got few chances to communicate with the wider public, and in her early days as leader she rarely took advantage of those opportunities when they came about.
But she worked hard to improve, and the 2015 general election offered Wood the biggest political platform of her life. It was no surprise that she was over-shadowed by Nicola Sturgeon in televised debates: the Scottish First Minister had spent much of the independence campaign honing her technique. But Wood confronted Nigel Farage head on, and emerged with credit. Polls in Wales soon showed a huge leap in her public recognition levels, and many people seemed to respond well to her ordinariness.
Yet while 2015 was a success for Leanne Wood, it was much less so for her party. Plaid failed to gain any parliamentary seats, and were pushed into fourth place in Wales behind Ukip. In the following year’s Welsh Assembly election the story was much the same. Detailed evidence from the Welsh Election Study showed that Wood had overtaken Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones as the most popular politician in Wales, and was rated as having had the best campaign. Yet her party only gained one seat – her own victory in the Rhondda, where she unseated the incumbent Labour cabinet minister Leighton Andrews on a huge swing. People in Wales seemed to like Leanne Wood personally, but she failed to convert that popularity into a substantial amount of votes.
After the 2016 devolved election though, things started to go seriously wrong. Plaid failed to make a serious dent in Labour’s dominance of Welsh politics. Worse, the Brexit referendum a few weeks later exploded Plaid’s long-held ambition for Wales’s ‘independence within the EU’. The party lacked an obvious direction, and Wood seemed unable to unite it around a new vision. Former party leader Dafydd Elis-Thomas quit the party, while their Assembly group was riven by personal divisions. Key party staff left, and were not adequately replaced: the party machine increasingly did not seem up to the task. The last thing a divided and disorganised party needed in 2017 was another election. But that was what they got. Observing Wood closely after a Welsh televised debate she looked utterly exhausted; her warm and optimistic nature was wholly unsuited to the negative ‘Defend Wales’ campaign that her had party decided upon. Plaid’s vote share went down, and although they narrowly gained an additional seat (Ceredigion, from the hapless Welsh Lib-Dems), the supposed ‘Party of Wales’ lost their deposit in almost half of Wales’s forty parliamentary seats.
The sense of drift continued for Plaid, and by this summer many of Leanne Wood’s colleagues had clearly decided that a change was needed. Perhaps bravely, perhaps foolishly, Wood decided to face the challenge head on rather than bow out. But the outcome of a ballot of party members last week was devastating: not only did Wood lose, she finished last behind new leader Adam Price and the other challenger, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
A number of Plaid members have told me that they saw the outcome as sad but necessary: there is still much affection for Leanne Wood in the party, but a widespread feeling that things could not continue as they were. Thus far she has said little, beyond congratulating her successor. There are unlikely to be public recriminations: it would be far more in keeping with everything we know about Leanne Wood for her to respond to this very public setback with the same quiet dignity she has consistently shown when dealing with huge amounts of online abuse. Perhaps she was always miscast in the role of party leader, but the substantial amount of affection shown across the political spectrum since her defeat says much about the character of this kind, generous and fundamentally decent person.