We may never know the details of the conversation that took place between Doug Ford and Christine Elliott Sunday afternoon. But we do know the outcome: Elliott has agreed to rescind her challenge of the Progressive Conservative leadership race results, and instead will stand behind the former Toronto city councillor.
It’s a truism in politics that while whoever ends up in first place on the last ballot wins, the runner-up helps determine whether the party actually comes together after a bruising contest. This is always a particular challenge for the Progressive Conservative party, given the two equally strong wings its name suggests.
The gold standard of post-convention unity was set in 1971. Bill Davis had won his leadership bid by only 44 votes on the fourth ballot, defeating his more progressive rival, Allan Lawrence. He instantly realized he would need help from some of the sharper minds on Lawrence’s team if he was going to unite the party and win the next election — so he brought the disputatious factions together as part of a new “Big Blue Machine,” giving Lawrence a senior cabinet post, and Lawrence’s campaign team significant roles in the party. Davis and Company went on to win four straight elections.
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In 1985, the PCs’ new leader, Frank Miller, was unable to win over the more progressive side of the party. As a result, the Tories appeared fractured going into that year’s election, and their 42-year dynasty collapsed. Party unity after a convention means everything, and the 2018 version of the PCs seems to get that.
Yesterday, Ford perhaps surprised critics who fear his victory represents an Ontarian flirtation with Trumpism by meeting with Elliott and making some kind of arrangement with her that resulted in each candidate extolling the virtues of the other and singing from the same hymnbook.
That was something Donald Trump surely did not do after winning the Republican Party nomination in 2016. He scorched the earth so thoroughly after the campaign that many of the other candidates struggled to acknowledge his victory.
We can’t be sure of what Ford offered Elliott to encourage her to call off her challenge, but my educated guess is that it was some combination of the deputy leadership (a role she previously played for six years), plus her choice of whatever cabinet job she wants should the Tories win the election on June 7.
So Ford has passed the first test of a new leader: he’s got the candidate he defeated onside. Even as recently as Sunday morning, that seemed too tall an order to imagine. Elliott was still giving every indication that she’d challenge the results of a leadership-selection process that left so much to be desired. It was an understandable position for her to take: some of the returns were heavily disputed, and the party was unable to assure Elliott that thousands of votes were, in fact, counted and applied to the correct ridings. (It’s possible that thousands weren’t, but, the party insisted, there weren’t enough “hanging chads” to change the outcome.)
What’ll be fascinating to watch over the weeks to come is how Ford handles the concerns of those who fear his premiership would introduce Trumpian chaos to Ontario politics. As we saw with Trump — and with Ford’s brother Rob in the 2010 Toronto mayoral election — progressives tend to be so revolted by populist candidates that they can’t imagine anyone in their right minds voting for them.
But both Trump and the late mayor were able to convince angry suburban and rural voters who felt left behind that they were their true champions. Progressives can’t seem to figure out how the Trumps and Fords of the world can make that connection work, but clearly it exists — even in multicultural communities, which the Liberals so depend on. In some respects, that makes Ford a harder candidate to run against than any of the other options that were available to the PCs.
There will be plenty of obstacles for Ford to overcome between now and election day. But he’s successfully negotiated his way around the first by getting Elliott onside. The second won’t be far behind. Both Elliott and Ford’s favourite other leadership opponent, Tanya Granic Allen, have indicated a desire to run in Cambridge, and since they both can’t, Ford will have to figure that one out.
Many Tories I talked to at the leadership convention in Markham on Saturday night were distraught that Ford was their new leader. They, no doubt, were well aware of the Angus Reid poll that showed 56 per cent of voters “certainly considering” voting PC had an unfavourable opinion of Ford. Among those same voters, only 11 per cent had an unfavourable opinion of Elliott.
But if Ford is smart, plays his cards right, gives Elliott a prominent role, and demonstrates respect for her position in the party, both wings of the PC party can feel good about this weekend’s result.
And a harmonious Ford-Elliott ticket would be the worst news the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens could hear.