CANADA

The mourning, the meaning

‘If they took the vote again today, it would still be 66 to 34—against Joe’

Ian Anderson March 9 1981
CANADA

The mourning, the meaning

‘If they took the vote again today, it would still be 66 to 34—against Joe’

Ian Anderson March 9 1981

The mourning, the meaning

CANADA

‘If they took the vote again today, it would still be 66 to 34— against Joe’

Ian Anderson

The bright yellow daffodils that Joe Clark’s supporters pinned to everyone’s lapels as they entered the Ottawa Civic Centre were meant to remind delegates of that Sunday five years before in the same arena when Clark came out of nowhere to snatch the leadership of the Conservative party. As the fateful Friday night wore on, the flowers wilted under the ungodly heat of the television lights—wilted like the speech of the man who had been the majority’s second choice in 1976. This time Clark was running against a far more elusive opponent—against his own image. It was the perception of one out of every three delegates that the party should throw itself open to a leadership convention.*

This limp handshake was the result feared most by the party and by the 41year-old leader who, for nine months, was Canada’s youngest prime minister. It came despite pleas on all sides for party unity. With Clark’s leadership

*Discounting 18 spoiled ballots, 2,123 votes were cast—714 for a leadership review (33.63 per cent), 1,409 against (66.36 per cent). A Maclean 's-Carleton poll published before the vote predicted percentages of 34 and 66.

now openly rejected by a third of his party, the coming months promise only a widening chasm of disenchantment which a growing number of Tories believe will eventually swallow this man who was schooled in Tory politics, married into the party and who, since university days, has been employed only by the party. By the morning after the vote, the heat was already building in the hotel corridors for the leadership convention Clark will try to suppress— and probably could not now win.

No one was more surprised by the result than Clark. He had convinced himself that he had reversed the tide of discontentment which had reached its peak in the months following his government’s traumatic defeat almost exactly a year before the Ottawa vote. He was so convinced that he made the fatal decision over lunch on Friday to play it safe that evening. Of the two speeches prepared for him, he chose the one he felt more comfortable with. Shelved was a tub-thumping challenge to the 2,141 delegates to support his leadership—and support it now. He worried that the gamble might fall flat, that he could not sustain the emotion. So he took the safe route, certain he had the solid support of three-quarters of the

delegates—a moral victory if not a triumph. After all, the recent polls had shown a third of the delegates against his continued leadership. But many of the delegates were looking for something more than a slightly altered version of the same speech Clark had been giving for the past year. They complained that he could not rise to the occasion. Under the sweltering lights many of the delegates sat stonily. Some just shook their heads. Most of the enthusiasm came from the 500 young Tories that Clark strategists had placed in clumps throughout the hall. They were supposed to muster the crowd’s excitement, but they needed more from Clark.

“It’s the two, three, four scenario,” was the anxious pre-vote assessment of a former Tory MP, defeated in the wave of anti-Clark sentiment in 1980. “If he gets 20 per cent for review, the review movement is done for. If he gets 30 per cent, the party’s done for. If he gets 40 per cent, Joe’s done for.” With the vote 33.63 for review, the Tories had their worst-case scenario. The leadership aspirants would feel compelled to come forward and Clark would feel compelled to fight them off. If there were any doubts about his intentions, Clark quickly dispelled them. When he took the stage again, unexpectedly, after the results were announced, many thought he would call then for an immediate convention. He didn’t. No longer were his hands trembling nervously as they had throughout his fatal speech. Instead, he gripped the podium firmly and, his wife Maureen at his side, chal-

lenged the delegates to move forward “as one strong and united party. That is my determination as your leader. And I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.” It summoned up echoes of the speech he had been afraid to give—and raised hopes among that minority of Tories who believe he can still win a national election. “Remember Stan Schumacher and Jack Horner,” prophesied Doug MacAdams,

a Vancouver lawyer, summoning up the names of the two opponents Clark drove out of his caucus. “That’s what this man can do.”

To other delegates it raised the ugly possibility of another bloody internecine fight like the one that toppled John Diefenbaker and split the party for nine years under Robert Stanfield.

Much of Clark’s miscalculation of the party’s mood was occasioned by the buoyant enthusiasm of the 1,100 Young Progressive Conservatives, whose convention preceded the senior meeting. For three months the Clark strategists had worked on the “tiny Tories” loyalty to the leader through telephone and mail contact. It paid off immediately when John Crosbie, a potential Clark rival, came to the end of his speech opening their convention. The Newfoundlander had not mentioned Clark until, almost as an afterthought, he said, “Now what of that leadership review issue...” At the mention of Clark’s name the room exploded in cheers. No one was more surprised than Crosbie. Any gloom among Clark’s staff vanished in the torrent of media reports detailing Clark’s resurrection. The young delegates peddled Clark buttons in the hotel lobbies and packed the convention hall for his speech, arriving early to take the places assigned to them by Clark headquarters. When Clark spoke to them Thursday night his mundane speech was punctuated by wild applause more than 50 times. Clark’s staff ensured the young would stay in Ottawa over the weekend by offering them free rooms. About half of the youth delegates attended the senior meeting, nearly all voting against a review. This made Clark’s final tally seem even worse in the light of the following day.

As a counterweight to the exuberant young Clark supporters, the PC Review Committee was no match, (see page 36). Headed by Toronto MP John Gamble, these denizens of the party’s right-wing fringe showed little credibility beyond their media role as the only organized, overt anti-Clark faction. Their signs were regularly ripped down and their hospitality suites went largely unused. “It’s like a cardinal visiting a whorehouse,” explained one pro-review, antiGamble delegate. “No one wants to be

seen coming out.” Precious few delegates, too, wished to be associated with outgoing party president Robert Coates’ call for a review. He was booed roundly for his efforts.

It was the pressure-cooker insistence on maintaining the facade of party unity, flavored by gory tales of the Diefenbaker bloodbath, that drove most dissidents into a seemly silence. They donned Clark buttons to ward off the hordes of young Clark supporters trying to locate any empty lapel. By the Saturday morning after the vote, the lapels were cleaner, the pressure relieved. Instead, the whispering had begun about a replacement.

At least one adviser close to Clark’s ear was advocating the night of the vote that Clark must now move quickly to clip the wings of at least two of the caucus members whose presence offers a threat to his survival. Both Crosbie and David Crombie, the former Toronto mayor, had withheld the full weight of

their influence on the delegates. The mischievous Newfoundlander did not hesitate to take a quick early jab at Clark, remarking drolly after the Friday speech that he had “expected a more emotional approach if you’re trying to influence people.” But then, Crosbie allowed, Joe Clark “has to be himself, so it wasn’t a real spellbinder.” While Crosbie arrived late at the Friday convention, and was hustled quickly into a makeshift TV studio, another leading light made a more glamorous entrance. Brian Mulroney walked the length of the hall, shaking hands and waving, before retiring to comb his hair and take a seat in a dark corner. Tanned from a Florida vacation, Mulroney worked the hotel suites and lobbies incessantly. Pressed by the media about

his intentions, Mulroney would only smile broadly and state: “I have a job, I’m president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada.” On Saturday afternoon, his tall, striking wife, Mila, at his side, Mulroney entered a packed, smoky meeting of the Quebec delegates and was met with loud cheers and a sustained chorus of “Bri-an! Bri-an!” It was left to Marcel Danis, leader of the Quebec Tories, to announce Mulroney’s intention to run in the byelection in the Joliette seat vacated by Clark’s sole surviving Quebec MP, Roch LaSalle. A seat in Parliament is the one major qualification Mulroney needs to successfully challenge Clark. It was this prospect of a favorite son as leader that crippled Clark’s support in Quebec, a province he had counted on.

Unless he moves first, Clark leaves himself at the dubious mercy of his party’s national executive. A convention call can come only from them. The picture is muddied, however, by the elec-

tion Sunday of Peter Blaikie as party president. Twice creamed as a Clark candidate in Montreal, Blaikie promises party unity but would not deny at his first press conference he had his own ambitions for Clark’s job. In the short term this works to Clark’s favor, Blaikie needing time to build a national platform for himself. Further, Blaikie should siphon some support from that other bilingual Montreal lawyer, Brian Mulroney.

It is a queasy Conservative party facing Joe Clark. Before the fateful vote, party unity was in order—in large part because of his successful Commons stands against the Liberals on the constitution and energy programs. Now, however, Clark’s weak grip on the leadership can only damage a party already terrified of losing the next election, and spending the next seven—not threeyears in opposition. Even before Friday’s vote, 34 Tory MPs would not support him publicly, and six of those were fellow Albertans. With the vote, it is no longer party unity at stake. The issue is party disunity—and how to mend it. “If they took last night’s vote again today, it would still be 66 to 34,” predicted one Tory insider on Saturday. “But it would be 66 against Joe this time.”

That fatal failure of nerve over his speech probably cost Clark no more than five per cent of the vote. But it was the five per cent he and the party needed most, the figure that would carry him beyond an open challenge. “The leadership was not resolved when the meeting began and it wasn’t resolved when it finished,” agonized a Clark supporter. “How long can we go on like this?” A more foreboding comment may have come from another Clark supporter, uttered even before the leader spoke Friday. “If we can’t convince ourselves about Joe,” asked London delegate Grant Hopwell, “how can we convince the country?”