If anyone had asked earlier this month who would be the last two candidates standing on the final ballot at the Conservative leadership convention in June, I would have said Rona Ambrose and Jean Charest. I might even have wagered a toonie on that eventuality.
Ambrose, from Edmonton, interim leader of the party (2015 to 2017) – armed with the support of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, plus the favour of the wizard behind the curtain, Stephen Harper – would carry the hopes of the Prairie-based right wing against Charest, representing the progressive side of the party.
Charest, a former leader of the old federal Progressive Conservatives and Liberal premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012, would bring experience, charisma and the prospect of bringing Quebec into the Tory fold.
It is not to be. Last week, both Charest (on Tuesday) and Ambrose (on Wednesday) announced they would not be candidates for the leadership.
Thursday brough another shock when Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre, considered to be the default candidate for the right if Ambrose did not run, declared that he had changed his mind. Although he had already assembled a campaign organization of high-profile Conservatives from the Harper era, he said he had to put his family – a wife and baby daughter – first.
The last time the party leadership was up grabs, in 2017, so many candidates emerged from the woodwork that it took 13 ballots before the ill-fated Andrew Scheer took home the prize. This time, with the Liberals reduced to a minority government and the prospect of electoral triumph ostensibly brighter for the Conservatives, the prize seems to have turned into a poisoned chalice.
At present, the party is a shambles. It doesn’t know what it stands for or where it wants to go – left, right or nowhere. It has a leadership contest with no significant candidate from the west, no candidate of note from Quebec, where it urgently needs to break through, and no woman candidate with a realistic chance of winning.
At least one woman, Marilyn Gladu, a little-known backbencher first elected in 2015 in the Ontario riding of Sarnia-Lambton, plans to run. Her chances appear to be somewhere between extremely slim and non-existent.
For all practical purposes, the party is left with Peter MacKay, a 54-year-old Nova Scotian who retired from Parliament in 2015. MacKay has built connections in Ontario while practising law in Toronto since his retirement. He will be duking it out with Erin O’Toole, the Durham, Ontario MP who finished third in the 2017 leadership, for delegate support in the province this time around.
The Conservatives could do far worse than MacKay. Although he is remembered as the last leader of the PC party, the chap who turned off the lights when it was taken over by Harper’s Canadian Alliance in 2003, MacKay is no relic from the bottom of the left-overs bin.
He stepped aside as Harper assumed the leadership of the new Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), but stayed to serve loyally and capably in three major portfolios – Justice, National Defence and Foreign Affairs.
Despite suspicions among right-wingers, MacKay is no Red Tory. He is perhaps best described as a conventional Conservative, cautious when it comes to change, but not opposed to it. He is solid, but never exciting.
His biggest liability as leader would be in Quebec. His French is said to be better than Andrew Scheer’s, but not nearly good enough for him to stand toe-to-toe with Justin Trudeau or Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet in Parliament or on television.
His leadership assets are name recognition and cabinet experience. And he has another card to play: an IOU dating from 2003, when he did not challenge Harper for the leadership of the new party and later accepted a lieutenant’s role in the Harper government.
There was a significant op-ed in the Globe and Mail last week in which Tom Flanagan, the Calgary political scientist and influential backroom Conservative, endorsed MacKay for the leadership.
Flanagan is widely regarded as a Harper whisperer. Conservatives will interpret his endorsement as the blessing of MacKay by the wizard behind the curtain.