This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 13, 2018.
Anyone who believes the adage that “you dance with the one who brung ya,” must be taken aback by the latest developments from Doug Ford’s campaign.
Justifying his decision to bounce Tanya Granic Allen as candidate, Ford declared that “her characterization of certain issues and people has been irresponsible.” Those “certain issues” include public-voiced anti-Muslim and anti-gay slurs, something that was already widely documented when he joined hands with her the night he won the Conservative leadership race.
And to be clear, she was not part of any centre stage throng. She was the only other leadership candidate standing in support of Ford.
Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal strategists clearly believed they could embarrass Ford by bringing renewed public attention to Granic Allen’s outrageouscomments. What has become clear, however, is that they have may have underestimated Ford, his political instincts and the remarkable resilience of Ford Nation.
In large measure, Ford’s rejection of Granic Allen’s candidacy in Mississuga Centre demonstrates his evolution as a leader as well as his sturdy grasp of both realpolitik and the back-to-basics Ontario mathematics curriculum he champions over sex education in provincial schools.
The equation is a simple one, as all the best political equations always are. He needed the support – and numbers – of Granic Allen and her social conservative posse to beat rival, Christine Elliott.
But the moment he defeated Elliott, he needed the numbers brought by Elliott and Conservative party moderates, even more than he needed Granic Allen.
That’s why his first step as leader was to make peace with Elliott; dumping Granic Allen is a further step in consolidating that support.
In politics, as in business, the skills and the people that get you to the first point on your itinerary, aren’t necessarily the same ones that can take to your final destination.
Ford’s willingness to do what it takes to win, demonstrates a tough-minded discipline, the ability to move with alacrity and a willingness to execute that positions him in stark – and favourable – contrast to others.
As it happens, parting company with Granic Allen also came with some highly desirable real estate: A generous acreage of moral high ground. Specifically, it allowed Ford to draw attention to the Big Tent that both he (and his late brother) can command. “We are a party comprised of people with diverse views that if expressed responsibly we would respect,” he declared.
That is by no means a hollow claim. Ford has already demonstrated his populist affinity for a Big Tent – he’ll accept support from anyone of any race, religion or ethnicity. But when the outcry over Granic Allen’s controversial remarks threatened to generate enough wind to knock that tent over, he wasn’t going to stand by and let that happen.
Not even for a minute.
In all of this, it’s useful not to lose sight of the fact that Ford’s Big Tent extends to political advisers as well as Ontario voters. Many of those now surrounding and counselling Ford cut their teeth in the early days of Stephen Harper’s rise to power. Harper, much like Ford, was underestimated until the day he was elected prime minister of Canada.
In framing the Harper government, he and his advisers built and sustained power by successfully tacking from the hard-right into the middle to meet the majority of Canadians. It wasn’t quite a bait-and-switch tactic, but it was reflective of the same hard-nosed politics of which Ford is clearly capable.
It’s now abundantly clear that Ford is shrewd enough to understand the importance of such a strategy. With a little help from Harper’s friends, he has positioned himself to use it to his advantage.
He clearly understands the famous adage of the French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who said: “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”
Now that the Ontario election is underway and as campaigning becomes more intense, Ford will continue on the path he has set. The social conservatives who brought him to the ball, will either have to change the way they dance or accept their status as permanent political wallflowers.