This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 4, 2018.
Who could have predicted that the Ontario PCs would manage to take what seemed initially like a disastrous situation with Patrick Brown’s resignation, and turn it into an opportunity?
“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once said after an overeager newspaper prematurely posted his obituary following an illness.
The same might be said of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
For months now, the fortunes of the Ontario Liberals have been in the doldrums. Despite thoughtful efforts by both Premier Kathleen Wynne‘s government and her campaign team to turn things around, the rate of improvement has been discouragingly slow.
So, of course, with the tragic and macabre scene that was Patrick Brown’s resignation, predictions began to emerge that it was the trouble for the Tories.
Make no mistake – the shocking fall of Brown was a spectacle, but it was not one that will leave lasting damage on the Ontario PCs, as much as many observers might wish it were so.
In fact, it may leave the party in a stronger position than it was just two short weeks ago.
While Brown had proven to be politically adept, and had managed to stay ahead of a number of curveballs thrown at him by the premier, he also struggled to connect with voters.
What is also clear now is that Brown had a significant number of skeletons in his closet that could have easily emerged during an election campaign, dashing any hope of a PC government.
The quick removal of Brown demonstrated that the party never truly united behind him following his come-from- nowhere win.
But the party remains surprisingly strong. Tens of thousands of memberships, millions of dollars more than the Ontario Liberals and a slate of impressive candidates across the province indicate the Tories remain a political presence to be reckoned with.
Perhaps most importantly, the biggest potential pitfall that the party faces has thus far been avoided.
It’s no secret that Progressive Conservatives are prone to infighting and petty internal politics. So, it was fair to assume the vacuum of leadership mere months before an election would create a drama worthy of Shakespeare.
But it hasn’t happened. Instead, a leadership election is being planned that from the outside appears remarkably orderly. While caucus did make a brief attempt to install its own leader without the benefit of an election, that ill-advised move was promptly overturned by the party executive, which organized a speedy leadership that will conclude on March 10.
The astute move ensures the party’s grassroots members will be engaged and mobilized in advance of an election, rather than demoralized and disheartened.
In addition, a PC leadership race with a choice of candidates that includes Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips promises to hoover up media coverage.
Heading into an election, a government’s best weapon is its ability to set the agenda. The PC leadership race will likely scuttle that possibility as it demands the attention of the Queen’s Park media gallery. Ford, in particular, is fascinating to the media and his ability to attract attention will be to the detriment of the Ontario Liberals.
Look at just last week. While the Liberals were trying to talk about the minimum wage hike, all that Ontario politicos were discussing was the optics of Ford announcing his campaign for leadership from his mother’s basement.
Petty and unimportant? Certainly. But a column is a column, and it was all Ontario voters were reading about.
More than that, the slate of leadership candidates is impressive. Elliott, Mulroney, Phillips and potential caucus candidate Todd Smith are all effective communicators with impressive credentials. All are capable of leadership and, most would agree, would more naturally fit the profile of premier than Brown.
Ford, for all of his faults, is a candidate who may just catch fire. The man, as noted, is an impressive communicator who intuitively knows how to get attention – and how to speak to the common person. People rewrite history now, but he came shockingly close to capturing the mayoralty of Toronto in a truncated campaign.
Who could have predicted that the Ontario PCs would manage to take what seemed initially like a disastrous situation and turn it into an opportunity?
For a party that is more used to off-the-rails political moves, this is both a change of fortunes and an exciting time. But they’re not out of the woods just yet.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.