Four years ago, Ieuan Wyn Jones arrived at the Plaid Cymru conference to cheers from a crowd of supporters outside Venue Cymru in Llandudno.
He had led them into coalition government with Labour.
Yesterday, the party gathered at the same location, where the only arrival to provoke any excitement was Jason Gardiner, the most acerbic judge on ‘Dancing on Ice’.
He was promoting his forthcoming appearance at the same venue as Abanazar in ‘Aladdin’, this year’s Christmas pantomime. But there were some words that sounded just like the ice panelist when he’s showing no mercy to an ungainly skating star: ‘uncharismatic, colourless, characterless’.
In fact, that was Ieuan Wyn Jones recalling some of the brickbats that have been thrown at him during his time as Plaid’s leader. Mysteriously he had still survived 11 years in charge of the party (including a job-share with Dafydd Iwan for a couple of years after the party’s poor result in 2003).
The even worse result this year was followed by his acceptance that it was finally time to quit — though not quite yet. His decision to first hold a review of what went wrong and only step down at the start of 2012 means that this conference will not just hear the present leader’s last speech but also some of the grassroots frustration that the new leader will have to address.
One complaint is the belief that the party’s identity has become blurred in voters’ minds, with several constutuencies pointing out that the policy of simply calling themselves ‘Plaid’ had left them in the odd position of being the only major party without any reference to Wales in its name.
But some are going further and blaming the whole business of becoming the junior partner in a coalition. Soon after the leader’s speech tomorrow, delegates will debate a call to rule out entering into any coalition before 2016. Plaid Cymru’s AMs have put forward a counter-proposal which simply acknowleges that any deal would need the approval of the wider party.
The Llanelli constituency wants a complete ban on any deal with the Conservatives. Not just preventing a coalition that brought Tory AMs into government but also denying them any say on how the Welsh budget is spent. That would rule out co-operation in opposition to force budget concessions out of Carwyn Jones.
Plaid’s AMs are hostile to that idea, as well. Even the ones who blame the loss of Llanelli on Ieuan Wyn Jones’s refusal to rule out a coalition deal with the Conservatives. They can still see some value in co-operation with the Tories in opposition.
After all, a bumpy ride over the budget might well be the best way of convincing Labour that it’s time for fresh coalition talks with Plaid Cymru.