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Rona Ambrose and Jean Charest may not be the only leadership candidates whose find their race is run before it’s truly begun.
It is an over-simplification to suggest Pierre Poilievre, left, will be the hard-right Reform candidate and Peter MacKay the voice of the mushy Red Tory middle.
Rona Ambrose is out and she wasn’t even in. The former Conservative minister ended weeks of speculation about whether she would run for the party’s leadership by saying that she is going to pass and “focus on making a difference through the private sector”.
She said she struggled with the decision of whether or not to return to political life but her conclusion came as no surprise. Her friends were always dubious that she would commit. She married her partner, businessman JP Veitch, last summer and people who know her well said she is enjoying the pace of life in the private sector, as well as being back in Alberta.
The announcement will be lamented by Conservatives who saw her as the most likely bet to modernize a party that has been disparaged as out-of-date and narrow-minded. In her written statement, Ambrose tacitly made the case for change. “I know we will choose a strong, compassionate person to lead us, who supports ALL families,” she said.
She joins former Quebec premier Jean Charest on the sidelines.
He told anyone who would listen that he was considering a run at the federal Conservative leadership, ostensibly to gauge the response.
It would appear that the ferocity of that reaction – which could be summed up as “scorn, with added vitriol” – was enough to dissuade him from what was surely a doomed venture.
His decision, perhaps even more than Ambrose’s, will have ramifications for the other candidates, even if it’s not clear immediately what they are.
The absence of a top tier Quebec candidate – with all due respect to former staffer Richard Décarie, who has said he will run, and Dragons’ Den star Vincenzo Guzzo, who is still mulling the idea – makes that province an interesting battleground.
There were 44 Quebec ridings where fewer than 100 ballots were cast in the 2017 leadership contest – yet each riding carries the same 100 points as constituencies in Alberta that sent nearly 1,500 ballots last time.
Candidates don’t need to convince that many party members of their worth to run up the score in a province that controls 7,800 of the 33,800 available points. A sweep in Quebec gets you almost halfway to the golden 17,000 points mark – and the race is now wide-open.
There are growing concerns that this could prove to be a particularly divisive contest
There is general agreement among the dozen or so senior Conservatives I spoke with on Wednesday, that this is shaping into a contest between Peter MacKay and Pierre Poilievre, with Erin O’Toole a wild card in third place but still capable of pulling off a shock.
Charest’s decision certainly upsets any plans Poilievre had of running as the rock-ribbed movement candidate, who would stop the Progressive Conservatives and other socialist apparatchiks from taking over their party.
On the other hand, Charest would have brought in new members who would have been more likely to transfer their support to MacKay, if and when Charest fell off the ballot.
There are growing concerns that this could prove to be a particularly divisive contest, if the two candidates are viewed as proxies – Poilievre for Stephen Harper; MacKay for Brian Mulroney.
But it is an over-simplification to suggest Poilievre will be the hard-right Reform candidate and MacKay the voice of the mushy Red Tory middle.
For one thing, those divisions are ancient history for anyone under the age of 35.
For another, neither candidate has acted according to stereotype.
Poilievre upset social conservatives last week when he told Quebec media that he is pro-choice and supports same sex marriage.
The Ottawa area MP remains a relatively unknown quantity, even to many Conservative Party members, and the race gives him a chance to re-invent himself as a more rounded politician than the cartoon version drawn by his opponents.
“He could do to use half a cup less of hair gel and get some new suits. But he’s been far and away the best Conservative MP in the House since 2015,” said one senior party member, who professed himself surprised that he is leaning toward Poilievre.
Equally, MacKay was more conservative than progressive when he introduced a number of law and order measures as justice minister, not least a prostitution law that was of dubious constitutionality.
The former minister’s support is likely to come from all corners of the Conservative coalition. He has already received testimonials from western Conservative MPs Ed Fast and Blaine Calkins, both of whom backed O’Toole in 2017. Ontario MP Dean Allison has also come out in support.
“Peter has grudging support from a lot of people,” said one senior member of Harper’s government. “He’s a happy guy and he hasn’t pissed people off,” said another influential Conservative, who said Charest’s decision will make MacKay’s (and O’Toole’s) imperfect command of French less glaring.
Caucus endorsements are meaningless, unless the MP can carry the party members in his or her riding with them. O’Toole had the support of 31 MPs in 2017 and came third; Doug Ford had none when he became Progressive Conservative leader in Ontario.
But candidates undoubtedly take the view that it’s better to have them than not. Much effort will now be spent trying to woo influential organizers in Quebec, such as MP Alain Rayes.
Other candidates will emerge. Derek Sloan, the rookie MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington said on Wednesday he will run, as did businessman Rick Peterson, who won 0.67 per cent of the points in 2017 before falling off the ballot.
Whether the less well-known applicants, including Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu, are still candidates at the end of March, when they are required to have paid their $300,000 and filed 3,000 signatures from 30 ridings in seven provinces is another matter.
Ambrose and Charest may not be the only leadership candidates whose find their race is run before it’s truly begun.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020