There is nothing like a leadership race to stir the blood of political practitioners and start their adrenalin pumping, to ignite the latent ambition of newbies, and to cause oldsters to revive dormant dreams of leadership glory.
It’s like that in the federal Conservative party as 2020 begins.
The party announced on Friday that the new leader will be chosen on June 27 in Toronto. Still to come are the rules for the race. Organizers are talking of making it tougher to run than it was in 2017 by tripling the entry fee – to $300,000 – and requiring the signature of 3,000 supporters (versus 300 last time).
Prospective candidates are marshalling their troops, recruiting campaign managers, taking polls, drafting budgets, and planning their strategies for the stages between now and June.
All this activity is unfolding without any consensus as to what the Conservative party of the 2020s wants or needs to be. Its divisions are stark – between its reform and progressive roots, between east and west, between old and new, between those adherents whose only priority is to defeat Liberals now and those who believe that transitioning to a modern party, reflective of our changing society, is the necessary route to electoral success.
Conversations with practising and lapsed Conservatives these days produce more speculation than fact. Everyone has a theory, a rumour, a shred of gossip.
In the west, the most excited speculation surrounds Stephen Harper. Close followers are picking up coded signals that the former leader and prime minister (2006-2015) would accept a draft should the party fail to agree on a suitable new leader – “suitable” meaning someone clearly to the social conservative side of the party divide.
For the nonce, most of the hoping-for-Harper support will be parked, or so rumour has it, with Albertan Rona Ambrose, the former (2015-2017) interim leader, who may or may not decide to be a candidate.
In the east, another certified oldster, Jean Charest, excites speculation among Conservatives on the progressive side of the divide. They argue that the party must have a leader who can do what Andrew Scheer patently could not do – win Ontario, hold Atlantic Canada, and give the Liberals and Bloc Québécois a real fight for their seats in Quebec.
Only Charest, they contend, has the experience and political tools to bring down the Justin Trudeau Liberals while tapping into mainstream Canadian political opinion. Experience he has: a federal cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney; the national leader (1993-1998) who brought the old Progressive Conservative party back from the grave of the 1993 election; Liberal premier of Quebec (2003-2012).
He is currently a partner in the Montreal office of McCarthy Tétrault, the law firm on whose behalf he recently undertook a speaking tour to Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and New York to advise business groups on what to expect from Trudeau’s minority government. Nice work, but it doesn’t get the adrenalin pumping.
Charest has never strayed far from the political action. He is one of those political creatures who loves the game and is never happier than when he is campaigning.
He would bring instant excitement to the leadership race. But will he run? The consensus among those who know him, is, yes, he will, provided he thinks he has a realistic chance of winning.
One of his Quebec friends put this way in an email to me: “Oh, yes, he has his running shoes on and is tying them up as I write.”
To Conservatives on the other side of the divide, Charest is too Quebec, too French (his father was francophone, his mother Irish Canadian) and much too liberal.
But isn’t he too old? He’s been around politics so long – elected to parliament in 1984, when he was 26; at 28, the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history – that we assume he must be older than he is.
He’s only 61. That makes him one year older than Harper and a decade and a half younger than several serious presidential candidates in the United States.