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October 26, 2002

The Lordless Tory forecast


Published October 26, 2002 in the Toronto Globe and Mail, page A19.

FREDERICTON -- Bernard Lord appeared positively serene. Having announced earlier in the week that he was closing, locking and bolting the door on running for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, the Premier of New Brunswick rocked back and forth in his chair during an interview with the relieved calm of one who has dispelled a cloud fogging his mind.

"I had the time to reflect on this, to consider all the angles and the facts and the advice and encouragement, and I'm convinced I made the right decision," he said, even though "I can say my chances of being successful in the leadership race were probably very good."

Mr. Lord is one of the few Conservatives in the country happy with his decision, apart from the handful of aspirants who will now feel free to campaign in his absence. With evidence increasing that John Tory, the communications executive and former Canadian Football League commissioner, will also decline to run, the advantage of Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay in his bid seems insurmountable.

"It was a great day for Peter MacKay, if not necessarily for the party," observed former leadership candidate Hugh Segal.

Mr. Segal is actually fairly bullish on Mr. MacKay but conceded that the Tory House Leader's lack of experience or national recognition would handicap the party. But, he added, "I would plead for the notion that perceptions of leadership can change."

Perhaps. But unless they change, the Tories could be headed for oblivion.

Here is how bad things are: The party is in debt, to the tune of $5-million. (It was twice that after the 2000 election, until the Tories sold off their Ottawa headquarters.) The Conservatives hope to reduce that debt slightly by selling memberships during the leadership campaign and through charges to delegates at the leadership convention. On the other hand, candidates will be chasing donations that otherwise would go to the party.

Assuming the Conservatives go more deeply into debt to wage their next election campaign, a poor result would leave them facing bankruptcy.

And a poor result is now almost foreordained. The party has little hope of holding its own west of Ontario; without Joe Clark, a Westerner, as leader, its two seats in Manitoba and one in Alberta could disappear.

The party also has no hope of making inroads in Quebec -- and may lose its one seat -- for that province has almost exclusively voted for only native sons in every election since 1968. It won't help that, at this point, all the major leadership contenders are unilingual.

As for Ontario, the formula of splitting the conservative vote with the Alliance, leaving the key electoral province in Confederation in firm Liberal hands, remains unimpeachably in place. An obscure regional candidate from the Maritimes might, at best, hold the Tory vote, which means no seats. At worst, the vote would collapse, to the Alliance's advantage.

Rogers Cable CEO John Tory has a fortunate last name and enviable Bay Street connections, and might have some native-son appeal in Ontario. Certainly, he is looking hard at taking a run -- his friend Allan Gregg has been doing some polling for him. But sources close to Mr. Tory say he is inclined not to run, although he is also probing the possibility of going after the mayoralty of Toronto.

Without Mr. Tory, the Conservatives are likely to be confined to an Atlantic Canadian rump under the leadership of local MPs Scott Brison, John Herron or, most likely, Mr. MacKay. That would leave the Conservatives as the least important of the three regional protest parties and open the possibility of Liberal governments in Ottawa in perpetuity.

In a nightmare scenario, Maritime and Newfoundland voters may decide their only hope of federal development dollars lies in re-entering the Liberal camp, costing the Tories seats even in their homeland. A net loss of three seats in the next election means a loss of party status.

And then there is the Orchard factor. Renegade Conservative David Orchard espouses a populist blend of leftish and Red Tory policies, including opposing the North American free-trade agreement and isolating Canada from U.S. foreign policy, while supporting agriculture and the Kyoto Protocol.

The groundswell of support he received in the 1998 campaign almost vaulted him into the leadership. What is he up to today? "I just finished the harvest out in Saskatchewan," Mr. Orchard said in an interview. And after he got the crops in, he began a national speaking tour that has taken him from Vancouver to Toronto, with future engagements in Montreal and elsewhere. As he travels, he also meets local riding associations.

Is he going to run again? "I'm listening to what the people are saying." He reacted with alarm when told that his Web site listed him as a "potential leadership candidate." Somebody else wrote that, he insisted.

But, by one Tory insider's estimate, Mr. Orchard already controls 30 riding associations in the West and is organizing in Ontario. With the Tories' membership now under 20,000, according to sources (the party will not divulge the number), the danger that Mr. Orchard could put together a mass membership drive, seize the leadership and move the party radically to the left is very real.

So it comes down to this: The Tories under Peter MacKay or another Atlantic MP might lose any national representation outside Ontario. The Tories under David Orchard would end up splitting the NDP vote, and the party might disappear entirely. The most credible remaining Ontario candidate, John Tory, isn't enthusiastic about the job. Prospects are bleak.

Unless, of course, the leadership changes again. A figure of national prominence might decide, in the wake of another Liberal hegemonic sweep in 2004, to seek once again to unite conservatives. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris has suggested he would be interested in leading a united conservative party.

But Mr. Harris will be old news by 2005. Bernard Lord, on the other hand, may well be savouring his second majority-government victory, and wondering what political future awaits him.

What about it, Mr. Lord? Would you consider running if the leadership opens up after the 2004 federal election? "I'd have to see down the road," he replied. "I can't answer. I won't even attempt an analogy with a door, this time."



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