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When Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, announced last week that she would stand down as leader if she did not become First Minister after the next Assembly election, two obvious interpretations struck me.  The first, and presumably the intended one, was that it was a bold and confident statement of intent that she intends to ensure that Plaid win sufficient votes and support to turn the idea of a Plaid government, or a Plaid-led government, into reality.
There are only two ways in which it could become reality, however.  The most obvious is for Plaid to win sufficient seats to become – at the very least – the largest party in the Assembly and then claim the ‘right’ to be given a shot at forming a government.  It’s not entirely impossible, of course; we’ve seen dramatic swings in electoral support elsewhere, not least in Scotland.  But any hard-headed analysis of the polling data would have to conclude that it looks more than a little unlikely as things stand.  The Tories have a long-standing and apparently unshakeable core level of support amongst the electorate of around 20%, and this seems unlikely to change.  UKIP will almost certainly disappear at the next Assembly election, and the Lib Dems seem certain to remain marginalised.  That means that any increase in votes and seats for Plaid can only come at the expense of Labour.  There are no obvious indications that such a shift is on the horizon.
The other way of realising the aim is for a minority Plaid government to enjoy at least the tacit support of another party – and in this case, the only realistic option is the Tories.  It nearly happened after the last Assembly election – a united non-Labour opposition could have replaced Labour but for the solitary Lib Dem choosing the other option.  What sort of government that would have been remains a mystery to me, but Plaid depending on votes of Tory and UKIP AMs for its survival on a daily basis suggests that any programme for government would have had to be very bland and play always to the lowest common denominator.  Such a government does not need to be a formal coalition, of course, but there is no escaping the fact that any alternative government whose daily survival depends entirely on being ‘not-Labour’ looks more likely to turn out as a sleepy camel than a thoroughbred stallion.
And if the prospect of Plaid’s leader becoming First Minister looks diminishingly small as things stand, then we are faced with the other interpretation of Leanne’s statement, which is that she has effectively given three years’ notice of her intention to quit, and potentially become, as some would argue, a lame-duck leader as a result.  Clearly there are and have been for some time internal rumblings, and it seems probable that there are members preparing for a leadership challenge.  Politics is full of egos and ambition, and there are always those who think that they can do better than the incumbent – a point which is true for any post in any party.
The question, though, is what changes as a result of a change of leader?  Clearly some leaders are better than others at motivating members; clearly some have a better media persona than others, but how much difference does the leader really make?  Looking specifically at Plaid, the party’s electoral performance under the current leader has not been notably different from its performance under the previous leader despite the obvious huge difference between the two individuals; the party’s proportion of votes and seats in the Assembly has lain within a narrow range at every election barring the very first.  Where is the evidence that a change of leader would be transformational?
I can’t help wondering whether those who believe that the answer is a change of leader are actually very clear about what the question is.