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Globe and Mai, Friday 21 November 2003

Tories might well ask: What's it all about?

Tories might well ask: What's it all about?

by John Ibbitson

For the proposed Conservative Party of Canada, it's just one thing after another.

Former Ontario premier Ernie Eves has told his caucus he wants to step down in January, and has recommended a leadership convention for March. If the party concurs, it will be dismal news for efforts to unite the federal PC and Canadian Alliance parties.

The new party's leadership convention is also slated for March, ruling out participation by Ontario conservatives, who will be busy with the provincial race. The loss of their participation will only reinforce the impression that the Western-based Alliance under Stephen Harper has absconded with the Progressive Conservatives while no one -- especially the Conservatives -- realized what they were doing.

The increasing likelihood that Mr. Harper will win the leadership has pro-union Conservatives in despair. They envisioned a genuine merging of the parties, under a new leader who could break through in the Canadian heartland.

Former Ontario premier Mike Harris was their first choice, but Mr. Harris decided the race would not be worth the personal and professional cost. Frantic, pro-merger Conservatives pleaded with New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord to come to the aid of the new party.

All right, so he has a razor-thin majority in the provincial legislature, meaning his government would probably fall if he left. Maybe there's some way to talk a couple of Liberal MLAs into crossing the floor. Maybe we should just let the damn government go down to defeat, and spin it as a necessary sacrifice for the greater national good.

Although he said unequivocally last weekend that he would not run for the leadership, there are still a few unionist Tories who think Mr. Lord can be wooed.

"The simple answer to that is no," Mr. Lord said yesterday, in an interview, and then repeated, for emphasis: "The answer is no." So there.

In desperation, some Conservatives are promoting the candidacy of Larry Smith, publisher of the Montreal Gazette. He's a former football player, commissioner of the CFL, and saviour of the Alouettes. Hell, he breathes in and out, which is qualification enough at this point.

But if Mr. Smith believes that, with no organization or previous political affiliation -- at least, as a newspaper publisher, there had better not be -- he can win the leadership of a national political party, this would suggest he took one too many for the team.

Tory Leader Peter MacKay says he will probably run, Calgary businessman Jim Prentice very much wants to throw his hat in, while Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison is still considering his options. The problem for all three is that it will take at least $1-million to mount a credible campaign, in part because the leader will be chosen through a preferential ballot. That is, party members in all 301 ridings will vote once, ranking their choices, with victory going to the candidate who has the most overall support.

That means candidates must organize in all 301 ridings simultaneously, giving a huge advantage to those who already have properly funded grassroots organizations in place. Mr. Harper has such an organization, and it's well rested; the Prentice, Brison and MacKay teams are weary and impoverished from the last campaign, which ended less than six months ago.

All of which augurs well for Mr. Harper. The question then will be -- what does his victory give him? Informed sources predict the merger proposal will be ratified, but only by about 70 to 75 per cent of the Tory membership, which means that about a quarter of the old party will walk away from the new one.

(Anti-ratification activist David Orchard, conceding defeat on this front, will announce today that he is suing Peter MacKay. Stay tuned.) Red Tories will not tolerate a Harper victory. The Alliance leader, in order to secure his hold over his own party, has moved closer to its social-conservative wing. These are the folk who oppose gay marriage, are uncomfortable with multiculturalism, would reduce immigration quotas, and revisit the issues of abortion and capital punishment.

They are the voice of the angry, the bitter, the alienated. The country has moved so far from them that no party that gives them the time of day can ever hope to form a government.

In which case, Progressive Conservatives have good reason to ask themselves: What was this all about? Why did we hand this party over to Stephen Harper? Who let the social conservatives in? What, exactly, did we get out of this?


jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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