I keep hearing that it’s not who wants in but who’s out that is the real story in the Conservative leadership race. I’m not sure this is accurate.
While the decision of Pierre Poilievre to drop out of the race was shocking to me, the decisions of Rona Ambrose and Jean Charest to take a pass came as no surprise. Ambrose has been enjoying life outside of politics and the lure of coming back simply wasn’t enough. For reasons I will explain in a moment, Charest never had a chance.
That leaves at this point Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Marilyn Gladu and which ever candidate the so-con movement gets behind. There are some other candidates talking about running, like Leslyn Lewis who was profiled by my Sun colleague Joe Warmington, but until they raise the money and get the signatures to be official candidates I won’t be writing much about them.
I sat down with MacKay last week ahead of his launch to talk about why he wants into the race. He really is downplaying the Red Tory label calling it “a useless negative narrative.” It’s not that there aren’t elements of that to MacKay but it isn’t him.
When it comes to issues such as defence, criminal justice and even foreign affairs, MacKay is quite hawkish. Is he a social conservative? Not by a long shot but I don’t see a social conservative winning the leadership this time. Scheer was a so-con but didn’t run as one for leader or in the general election.
O’Toole has been described as a Red Tory at times and its not a label his team wants to adopt. Like MacKay, O’Toole is strong on defence having spent five years navigating helicopters for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He served as Minister of Veterans Affairs towards the end of the Harper government and was well regarded. One of O’Toole’s main problems will be carving out a niche of voters and an image distinct from MacKay.
They both would appear, on the surface, to espouse the same general outlook. They both reach back to Nova Scotia roots. The big difference for O’Toole is his private sector experience as a lawyer, including a stint with Proctor and Gamble.
The candidate with the best private sector resume is no doubt, Marilyn Gladu. She was an engineer with Dow Chemical for 21 years before joining Suncor as chief engineer. Her problem is her lack of national profile and an organization.
Gladu may be well liked but she was only elected in 2015 and has no experience in government. Could she be the surprise that O’Toole was in the last leadership? He went from the position Gladu is in now to placing third so don’t count either of them out.
Those who chose not to run.
Poilievre’s decision to not officially enter the race was shocking. I had spoken to him about his desire to run several times. The night before he announced he would not run he had been texting me details of his announcement. He says he has missed too much of his one year-old daughter’s life and he didn’t want to miss anymore.
For a political animal like Poilievre to take a pass at a leadership he had a good shot at winning is quite something. People on MacKay’s team have told me they viewed Poilievre as their main competitor. With him out the race changes.
As for Ambrose, her heart was never in it. She served as an MP for 13 years and held various cabinet portfolios and was interim leader. Since leaving though she has made herself busy with work in the private and charitable sector, got married and established a life out of politics.
While I know she considered a run as people pressured her to jump in, there was never the building of a campaign team. Unlike Jean Charest.
The problem with Charest.
Charest considered a run for leader very seriously. He called far and wide in Conservative circles, not just the Quebec and Ontario business community and not just the old Mulroney crowd. Charest was calling up party activists and organizers from all side of the Conservative Party and the conservative movement and seeking their advice.
He had people in place to launch if he went that way and ultimately he did not.
It’s not however, as he claims, that the party has changed so much when he left in 1998. Charest would have to have adjusted his position on gun control and that would have been about it.
The real problem with Charest is that he went away in 1998 and never came back. He never helped out the Conservative cause in Quebec or anywhere else in Canada. He would have shown very poorly in the race.
Finishing third or fourth would have been embarrassing for him but that was the likely outcome. Running would have also raised questions and stories about fundraising practices while he was Quebec’s Liberal leader as well as questions about the handing out of construction contracts.
Would Charest be welcomed back to his law firm or the boards he sits on now after a race like that? Not likely and his life and income would suffer as a result.
He could have made a good candidate in a general election but had too much baggage from his time leading another party.
Who should Conservatives pick?
The Conservative Party needs to focus on two main things in choosing a leader this time around. Firstly, who can unite the party and keep it united? Secondly, who can beat Justin Trudeau in the next election?
A friend put his voting calculus to me this way, vote for the most conservative candidate who can win in the next election.
Party members have the next few months to figure that out.