The party that Stephen Harper built will choose a new leader in just 12 days’ time, and it has a big problem.
Normally, leadership campaigns serve to do two things – to excite the party faithful and to attract at least the interest of the electorate at large. There is no sign, however, that this Conservative campaign has done either.
It has gone on too long. It has drawn too many candidates (13 still in the running). Most of them have no chance, and they would have done the party a favour if they had packed it in months ago and let the serious challengers vie for the spotlight. The “debates” orchestrated by the party were not debates at all; they were exchanges of tired talking points and, as such, made for terrible television.
The voting system – a potential 259,000 preferential ballots to be cast in 338 separate constituency contests, with each constituency, large or small, having the same weight in the final tabulation – is an interesting exercise, but from the perspective of a fan in the stands, it takes the horses out of the horse race. Spectators do not know which horse, or candidate, to cheer for because they cannot see which one has the lead, which ones may be closing in, and which have fallen back.
Kevin O’Leary, the game-show celebrity, can claim credit for bringing some fleeting glamour to the race. But he discovered that politics is hard work, and his withdrawal in late April took the life out of the campaign.
In fairness, the Conservatives have not had much opportunity to attract public interest. Events elsewhere loom larger than a colourless campaign for an opposition party that suffered a decisive defeat in the last election and may face the same fate next time. (The latest Nanos Research poll puts the Liberals 13 points ahead, 42 per cent to 29.)
There has been more pressing political news on other fronts – in Europe with Brexit and elections in France and Britain, with Germany to follow; in Asia, where North Korea is racing down a nuclear path; and in British Columbia, where the Greens have seized the balance of power.
And, of course, in Washington where the Midnight Tweeter burns through headlines like a pyromaniac in a printing plant, and where (whoever would have believed it?) his press secretary briefs reporters about the firing of the FBI director, but only after they find him hiding in the dark behind a hedge on the White House lawn,.
Who would have believed that President Trump would fire James Comey just when the FBI was investigating allegations of Russian interference in last year’s election, including possible Russian links to the Trump campaign? And who would have believed that Trump would then invite the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to meet him privately at the White House – a meeting from which all media, except the Russian news agency Tass, were barred.
Some of this is the stuff of high comedy. It is also the stuff of the most explosive political and constitutional crisis in the United States since Watergate four decades ago. How can Canadians be immune from the global fascination with the Washington drama? How can Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong, Andrew Scheer or any other Conservative hope to compete for public attention when across the border the so-called “leader of the free world” seems to be inviting impeachment.
Some Democrats and editorialists are already calling for Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. If impeachment passed in the House, the next step would be a trial in the Senate leading, on conviction, to removal from office. In Watergate, Richard Nixon, having been impeached by the House, resigned before he could be removed by the Senate.
Trump is a long way from that fate. But until the Washington saga plays out, it will dominate the political news. Conservatives will be hard-pressed to command more than passing public interest in their leadership succession.