It’s hard to remember the last time a political party had to deal with as many moving parts as the Tories did in Ontario this weekend.
The caucus’ selection of Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli as the interim replacement for former leader Patrick Brown set in motion a chain reaction that had Progressive Conservatives across the province phoning, emailing, tweeting, and Facebook messaging with dizzying speed.
Fedeli began to put his stamp on the party by re-hiring Brown’s chief of staff Alykhan Velshi to perform the same role in the new leader’s office. The new brass then fired the party’s executive director Bob Stanley (who’d caught so much flak for all the irregularities surrounding the PCs’ nomination meetings), plus several other Brown loyalists.
At the same time, the party’s special Leadership Election Organization Committee (LEOC) was meeting behind closed doors to resolve a particularly thorny question: Who should be allowed to run for the permanent leadership? A couple of sources familiar with the deliberations told me some on the committee were essentially trying to come up with a way to keep former Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford from seeking the post, and so they floated the notion that only current MPPs or nominated candidates should have the right to run.
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But a storm exploded on Twitter, led by former PC Party president Richard Ciano and Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, both of whom argued furiously against imposing any restrictions on any would-be candidates.
“When the topic of excluding leadership candidates came up at the executive meeting I advised against making irrational rules driven by fear,” Ciano tweeted, “and that such a rule would be wholly against the Constitution and more than 100 years of precedent.”
While the LEOC is still mulling the question, my sources doubted the prohibition would pass.
The next question up for debate: Should interim leader Vic Fedeli be permitted to seek the permanent job? It’s normal practice in these situations for the interim leader to be just that — a temporary figurehead, one who leads the party in parliament until a permanent replacement is chosen.
But Ontario Tories were apparently influenced by a comparable situation last year in Ottawa. After Stephen Harper stepped down as the national Conservative Party leader, MP Rona Ambrose became interim leader, on the condition she not seek the permanent job. But she performed so well that many Conservatives wished she could ignore that condition. She did not. But the feeling on the LEOC is that if Fedeli knocks it out of the park between now and the permanent leadership contest, he ought to have the right to stand for the job. Sources in the PC party have told me that the caucus was unanimously onside with that view, but ultimately, it’s up to the LEOC to make a recommendation to the party’s executive, which has the final decision.
While the LEOC was meeting, the main contenders for the permanent leadership tried to get their ducks in a row. Nominated candidates Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips seem like slam dunks to jump in. So does Fedeli. Doug Ford, who last year said he’d seek a rematch with John Tory for the Toronto mayoralty, announced today he will run for the PC leadership instead. Sources I’ve spoken to indicate that former MPP and now patient ombudsman Christine Elliott (who finished second to Brown in the 2015 PC leadership campaign), MPP Monte McNaughton (who also ran unsuccessfully against Brown and eventually endorsed him), former MP Stella Ambler, and Neil Davis, son of former premier Bill Davis, are all said to be kicking the tires.
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But there was also considerable appetite on the LEOC and executive committees to advance a possible candidacy by the most popular Progressive Conservative in the province today: Toronto mayor John Tory. Tory didn’t do anything to dampen those efforts when asked point-blank by a reporter on CP24 whether he had any interest in the job. “I already have a job,” the mayor said.
Which, of course, isn’t a no.
In fact, Tory wanted to keep the door slightly ajar, a long-time friend of the mayor told me, in case there was a “Draft Tory” movement within the party. As much as he enjoys being mayor and has planned to run for re-election in October, Tory has long coveted the same job his political hero, Bill Davis, had for 14 years — namely, that of Premier of Ontario.
But, according to a source with knowledge of the Caroline Mulroney campaign, when it emerged that Mulroney, another red Tory, had no interest in stepping aside even if Tory were to jump into the race, the mayor appeared to shut down any potential candidacy.
“I've had people approaching me about the Ontario PC leadership,” he tweeted. “I have the privilege of being Mayor of a city that I love and I hope to continue to do that job.” That seemed to be a clear signal that Tory intends to seek re-election to his current post.
But there were two more shoes to drop before Sunday night was over. First, the last ally of Patrick Brown in the Tory backrooms announced his resignation on Twitter: former MP Rick Dykstra, party president for the past two years, stepped aside. It was later revealed that Dykstra is accused of sexual assault. So Fedeli will now have to replace the party’s president and executive director in one fell swoop.
And finally, the party confirmed late Sunday something I’d caught wind of earlier in the day: that the PCs’ in-house database was the target of a hack by forces unknown who were demanding ransom.
That probably puts the kybosh on any online voting for the upcoming leadership convention, since the party can’t guarantee the integrity of the vote. The likely alternative: a mail-in ballot via Canada Post.
What the Tories are trying to do is virtually unprecedented in Ontario political history. The party has turfed its former leader and picked an interim one; it’s trying to decide on a set of new rules to run a convention; then it will hit the ground running in a general election campaign — all in about four and a half months.
Who says Ontario politics is boring?