So, what do they do about the bus?
The Progressive Conservatives have a nearly unending list of problems to deal with now that Patrick Brown has resigned as of very early Thursday morning, but that’s a rather obvious one: his face is plastered on the campaign tour bus they were expecting to drive all over Ontario during the election campaign this spring. His face is also on the cover of the party’s election platform document.
You see, only months ago the party’s primary concern was that voters didn’t know enough about Patrick Brown. Now we know all too much. Brown is facing serious allegations of sexual misconduct, first reported by CTV News. The accusations have not been proven in court, and Brown has denied all of them, stating that he wants them addressed “in a court of law.”
But only hours after CTV first aired its report on television, Brown was out as leader, his party was casting about looking for what might come next, and the province’s 42nd general election was blown wide open.
The chaos started shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday night, when members of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery were summoned to Brown’s chambers at the legislature. Late for his own 9:45 p.m. start time, Brown gave a brief statement before fleeing his own office and being chased by reporters to a waiting car.
And then the resignations started to pour in.
By 10 p.m., Brown’s chief of staff, campaign manager, and deputy campaign manager for strategy (Alykhan Velshi, Andrew Boddington, and Dan Robertson) had collectively announced their resignations on Twitter. Nick Bergamini (his press secretary) and Ken Boessenkool (who helped write that election platform with Brown’s mug on it) followed shortly thereafter.
Randy Hillier was the first Tory MPP (for Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox & Addington) to call for Brown to resign, telling Ottawa Citizen reporter David Reevely that “Mr. Brown will have to go” around the same time the staff resignations were rolling out. Sam Oosterhoff (Niagara–West Glanbrook) followed suit, according to QP Briefing. Lisa MacLeod, MPP for Nepean–Carleton, did not explicitly demand that Brown resign but issued a statement concluding that “these women deserve support and thanks.” Soon, it was not just MPPs, but also Tory candidates and even people who hadn’t yet been nominated who were urging Brown to go.
The PC caucus met for an emergency conference call late Wednesday, during which Brown sought the support of his MPPs to stay on as leader while he fought to clear his name.
Here it’s worth noting that many around Queen’s Park (including some within Brown’s own party) have long regarded him as a sort of alien invader: he parachuted in from an MP’s seat in the federal party, and won the leadership over a slate of experienced, well-respected MPPs who’d served in the provincial party for years. While he was promising a credible chance at victory over the Liberals, he was respected — but it’s never been clear whether the party’s institutional members would stick by him when the going got tough.
At 1:24 a.m., the Progressive Conservative party released a statement in Brown’s name that he was resigning as leader. It again denied the allegations against him but stating that “defeating Kathleen Wynne in 2018 is more important than one individual.”
There was some debate among reporters about whether Brown could even be forced out by his caucus — technically, the PC leader is chosen by members, and only they have the power to remove him. But even before midnight last night, it was clear that Brown’s position was untenable. Whoever the party’s leader is at this point in 2018, they need to be able to lead an election campaign: Brown’s campaign staff had already resigned and the party’s own candidates were publicly declaring that either he had to go or they would.
Brown can fight the allegations against him, but he can’t be a party leader if the people who make up the party won’t follow him. So, he did the only thing that made anything approaching sense in the circumstances and resigned.
But it’s not that simple. Brown is going to continue to haunt whoever replaces him for the rest of the campaign. Forget the bus and the glossy platform documents: every prominent member of the PC party has hundreds of pictures of themselves at rallies or knocking on doors or sitting with Brown at Queen’s Park — campaign literature that’s now going to be used against them wherever possible.
Oh, and every current and aspiring Tory MPP is going to spend some time being asked what they knew, and when they knew it. It’s a mess.
What the Tories will do next is still, on Thursday morning, a mystery. Technically, the party is supposed to hold a formal leadership campaign within 18 months of the leader’s resignation, but for obvious reasons they can’t wait that long: they’ll have to figure out a way to hold one of the fastest leadership campaigns on record if they’re to have any chance of being competitive on June 7.
It may be simplest to name one of the current PC MPPs as the new leader and hold a pro forma election to ratify that choice. But Brown, in 2015, prevailed over his rivals in part because of the claim that only someone from outside the traditional party could end its losing streak. Will one of the current MPPs satisfy party members who heard that argument then, and thought it was the right one?
That’s just one of the thousands of questions the Progressive Conservatives have to answer now. The other parties, for their part, may profit in unexpected ways from all this. The obvious prediction to make is that the Liberals will be solidly back in contention, but confident predictions are dangerous: Kathleen Wynne is still deeply unpopular, and many Tories I’ve spoken to this year (admittedly, before last night’s explosive news) believe that the real swing voters to watch for are primarily anti-Liberal, and the NDP may yet rise in the polls because of all this. The bomb that killed Patrick Brown’s political career may not be the one that keeps Kathleen Wynne in the Premier’s Office.
All of that will unfold over the coming days and weeks. But first, the Tories have to figure out how to fill Brown’s now-empty chair.
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