Caroline Mulroney has a bright political future. She may be premier of Ontario one day, if such remains her ambition. But now is not her moment.
Her name was the first out of the mouths of television pundits in the hours following the stunning demise last week of Patrick Brown as the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives – the man oddsmakers were touting to win the provincial election in June. But Brown is gone, his career ruined by exposure of his alleged penchant for inebriated teenage girls.
He will never be back, not even as a candidate for dogcatcher in Barrie. Justice – or is it retribution? – is swift and final in the court of public opinion these days when allegations of sexual misconduct are flung in the faces of men of power or influence, be they in politics, entertainment or commerce.
Brown was one of three political casualties in Canada last week, the others being Jamie Baillie, the PC leader in Nova Scotia, and Kent Hehr, the federal Liberal minister for sport and disabilities.
In Brown’s case, the party had no choice. The two women who told their stories to CTV were credible and the Tories could not afford to go into the election with a leader who had been convicted in the court of public opinion.
But why not Caroline Mulroney?
There are several reasons. To start, the Brown scandal has created an unholy mess that the party must clean up and sweep out of sight before it can take on Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals. It’s not just Brown’s transgressions. It’s also the divisions in the party that his departure reopens.
He came to the leadership as an interloper, a social conservative from Stephen Harper’s caucus in Ottawa. He was accepted grudgingly by the party’s progressive wing. Recently, with the election looming, he tried to move the Tories to the middle, embracing policies that were almost indistinguishable from the Liberals’. The move upset the party’s right wing without winning the trust of the moderates.
If the PCs don’t figure out where they stand, they will find their campaign picked apart by Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath, both skilled veterans with no love of Conservatives.
It would almost be unfair to ask a novice – Mulroney has never run for office; she’s nominated in York-Simcoe, a safe Tory seat, for the June election – to rid the party of both the stench and the internal divisions Brown left behind. That’s a job for an experienced hand. Someone like Vic Fedeli, the caucus finance critic, who was mayor of North Bay for seven years before being elected to the legislature 2011.
The caucus has already made Fedeli its interim leader and he intends to seek the permanent job when the party votes on March 24. He has made initial moves by declaring he would not sign nomination papers for Brown, and by initiating an investigation into the disgraced leader’s expenditure of party funds.
Although Fedeli, 61, is likely to have inside track, others could challenge him. Caroline Mulroney has some obvious advantages, starting with her gender. Some Tories are arguing that the best way to put the Brown debacle behind them is to replace him with a woman. She’s also the right age. At 43, she is in the same age bracket as the three principal national leaders in Ottawa (Justin Trudeau being the oldest at 46); she’s one year younger than her father was when he became leader of the national party.
And, of course, there’s that surname (she doesn’t use her husband’s name, Lapham, as a lawyer or politician). The Mulroney name accounts for 90 per cent of the buzz surrounding her. Father Brian is said to be working the phones assiduously, as only as he can, on her behalf.
Still, cooler heads suggest she wait, let the party climb out of the hole Brown dug, and be ready when the political stars are more favourably aligned.