Fresh from a post-Christmas vacation in Florida, a long-serving, unpopular Prime Minister returns to Ottawa— and a gale of speculation about his future. As the leader goes into relative seclusion, making only a handful of public appearances, his every move and each statement by his office is analysed by Canadians who want to resolve one issue: will he run again in a federal election planned for later in the year? As speculation stretches through January, members of the Prime Minister’s Office vigorously deny any retirement rumors—while warning prospective leadership candidates against beginning their campaigns. Then, finally, the Prime Minister ends months of speculation with a letter to his party’s president, requesting that the party “take all the necessary steps to arrange a national convention” to name a new leader to replace him.
Apart from the ending, the scenario is familiar. On Feb. 29,1984, Pierre Trudeau informed Iona Campagnolo, then-president of the Liberal party, of his intention to step down. So far, though, Brian Mulroney has kept his Conservatives guessing about his plans. Like Trudeau, Mulroney—in several brief public appearances—has appeared serene and has cheerfully feigned ignorance of the storm swirling around him. Like the Liberals in 1984, the Tories appear divided, uncertain and increasingly impatient with their leader. To those emotions, some Conservatives can add another: ambition. Despite public denials by the ministers involved, supporters have already started laying the groundwork for leadership campaigns for International Trade Minister Michael Wilson, Communications Minister Perrin Beatty and External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall. Supporters of Defence Minister Kim Campbell and Environment Minister Jean Charest have also been readying themselves. At the same time, Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt is considered a likely candidate, while former prime minister and Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark is also a potential—and powerful—contender.
In fact, many analysts initially argued that if Mulroney intended to resign, he would do so at last weekend’s caucus meeting. But in recent weeks, as speculation over the Prime Minister’s
WITH HIS TORIES SHOWING SIGNS OF IMPATIENCE, THE PRIME MINISTER REMAINS SILENT ABOUT HIS FUTURE
future grew, so did the issue of the timing of a potential retirement announcement. Some Tories say that Mulroney could wait as long as midApril to leave—and that such a late departure would still allow time to have a new leader comfortably in place for a fall election. Although leadership campaigns have traditionally taken up to three months, a convention could be held as quickly as 45 days after the Prime Minister states his intention to resign. There also remained a possibility that Mulroney would call a snap election—removing any doubt about his leadership—perhaps for some time in April.
As well, Tories say that regardless of Mulroney’s long-term intentions, he has short-term goals that would be damaged by an early resignation announcement. The most immediate of those was a meeting with President Bill Clinton, perhaps as early as this week. Mulroney’s government and many members of the Canadian business community regarded such an early meeting as essential to clear up growing questions about Clinton’s enthusiasm for the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade-related issues. As well, Mulroney plans to go to Moscow to meet Russian President Boris Yeltsin, possibly at the end of March. His unwillingness to appear as a lame-duck prime minister to either leader would be a key factor in the timing of a resignation, some Tories say.
Ever since speculation about Mulroney’s future heightened after the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum, the Prime Minister’s traditional iron grip over his caucus has eroded. Said one
cabinet minister, shortly before the Tories began a caucus meeting last weekend to discuss election plans: “Within caucus, it is now possible for the first time since Mulroney became leader to see MPs challenging him.” One public sign of that new assertiveness: the expressed intention of 11 Quebec Tory MPs to break party ranks and vote against a government bill that would cut off unemployment benefits for people voluntarily leaving their jobs.
The signs of dissent emerged at a time when those members of the Conservative party who believe that Mulroney will remain have been discussing the possibility of calling an election as early as this spring. Said Justice Minister Pierre Blais, who is one of the party’s two election-planning-committee co-leaders: “We are telling our people to be ready to go to the polls anytime after April.” And, Blais added in an interview with Maclean ’s: “That campaign will be led by the Prime Minister. That has been made very clear to me.” After a meeting with Mulroney and key cabinet ministers in Ottawa last week, Toronto lawyer John Tory, the planning committee’s other co-leader, also declared that Mulroney will not resign. “He is staying—period,” Tory said. “He is going to lead the party—period.”
At the same time, Mulroney is being urged to stay on by a variety of other senior Tories. Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, who had been widely expected to step down before the next election, told Maclean ’s that he will run again— if Mulroney stays on as leader. Said Crosbie: “If Brian is running, I am going to support him and run. If not, I will look at it all again.” Crosbie’s fellow Newfoundland MP, Ross Reid, echoed the feelings of many Mulroney supporters when he said that speculation over the Prime Minister’s future is a media creation. Added Reid: “I have seen the media drive themselves into a frenzy before—and I love it.”
Reid’s assertion is at least partly true: the Ottawa press gallery has paid little attention to anything other than Mulroney’s political future for the past three months. Still, many of his friends and most ardent supporters privately say that they expect him to resign. Traditionally, many of Mulroney’s deepest friendships have been based on his expectation that friends will reflect or defend his point of view publicly—and privately—at all times. But now, even friends acknowledge that they are skeptical of the Prime Minister’s public assertions that he will stay on. And they note that Mulroney, who often likes to build the widest consensus possible before making decisions, is, in private, uncharacteristically reticent on the subject of his own future. Said one friend of Mulroney’s for more than 25 years: “I think he will leave— and I do not think he will tell anyone until he has decided to do so.”
In fact, even though they remain loyal to Mulroney, many Tory MPs have begun to discuss possible battle plans with their constituents should Mulroney step down. At one Quebec riding-association meeting before Christmas, the riding’s MP asked his constituents whether it would be better to support Campbell or Beatty in a leadership race. The
rural residents supported Beatty, who is seen as more conservative; the urban residents favored Campbell, because of her more liberal views. Tory organizers in other ridings acknowledge that similar discussions are being held. Said Stephen Tribble, president of the Gaspé Conservative riding association: “Our preference and belief is that the Prime Minister will run again. But if he decides not to, we all agree that we would move heaven and earth in a leadership convention to elect Jean Charest.”
As the guessing intensifies, some Tories are reacting derisively to statements by PMO representatives that Mulroney will not step down. Among the victims: Hugh Segal, a onetime aide to former Ontario premier William Davis and Mulroney’s chief of staff since January, 1992. Segal was widely expected to improve Mulroney’s sometimes uneasy relations with Toronto-area Tories. But many members of that city’s Albany Club, the traditional meeting place of wealthy Conservatives, complain that Segal treats them disdainfully. And they were particularly caustic when Segal appeared on CBC TV recently to assert that Mulroney is “definitely” staying on—without specifying whether the Prime Minister had directly told him so. Said one frustrated Toronto Tory of Segal: “Hughie would have us believe that he spends day after day alongside his boss—but is too shy to ever ask him about his plans.”
If Mulroney, indeed, decides to resign, Toronto will be the centre of much of the manoeuvring over his successor. Two of the likely candidates, McDougall and Wilson, represent Toronto ridings while a third, Beatty, is the MP for the nearby southern Ontario riding of Wellington/Grey/Dufferin/Simcoe. Of the three, Wilson attracts the most interest and financial support—and many Tories say that he could
muster formidable support in a leadership race. But others say that Wilson is far more popular within the party than he is among other Canadians; his role in introducing the widely disliked Goods and Services Tax, his awkward, heavily accented French and wooden speaking manner in both official languages are all liabilities. By contrast, many Tories acknowledge that bilingual Kim Campbell—with her British Columbia roots, relatively liberal image and breezy public manner—could win the party new support among voters who have traditionally not supported the Conservatives. But in contrast to Wilson, Campbell is probably more popular among other Canadians than she is with fellow members of the party. In fact, she is
disliked by the party’s more conservative members and has little support in caucus. Members of the other major political parties are watching the Tories’ internal debate with a mixture of amusement and angst. Advisers to Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien acknowledge that their party’s 30-point lead in recent opinion polls owes more to Mulroney’s unpopularity than to any new enthusiasm for Chrétien. Because of that, conceded one adviser, “We pray to God that Mulroney stays.” Similarly, said Reform party strategist Stephen Harper: “The best thing for us is if Mulroney stays. If he leaves, the key is to make sure that his successor is saddled with everything the government has done.” On the other hand, advisers to NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin concede that they want Mulroney to go—because they expect a new Tory leader to take votes away from the Liberals. NDP strategists acknowledge that current public dislike of Mulroney is so strong that voters are turning overwhelmingly to the party they perceive as most likely to defeat him: the Liberals. Still, whatever and whenever Mulroney decides, most political strategists say that they hope that he makes his decision soon. At the start of an election year, members of all parties are likely to agree with a recent declaration by McLaughlin, who told New Demcocrats: “I would rather get fighting. I wish they would call an election right away—I do not care who the leader is.” For politicians tired of the months of intense speculation, the waiting has become the hardest part. ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with LUKE FISHER, GLEN ALLEN, E. KAYE FULTON and NANCY WOOD in Ottawa and MARY JANIGAN in Toronto
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