It was a most undiplomatic, if flattering, slip of the tongue. Lucien Lamoureux, Canada’s ambassador to Belgium, arranged a small, black-tie dinner at his elegant Brussels residence early this month for Conservative Party Leader Joe Clark. Seated around Clark at the dinner table were, among others, two bank presidents, two barons, a count and an executive of Belgium’s largest conglomerate, Société Générale. After dessert, Lamoureux reminisced about the days when he was Speaker of the House of Commons and Clark was a rookie Member of Parliament from Alberta. At one point, the ambassador referred to Clark as “Mr. Prime Minister.” Clark blushed, but Lamoureux. seemingly unaware of what he had said, kept right on talking.
Lamoureux’s error was understandable. After only seven months as Tory leader, Clark has seen his party take an incredible lead in the polls, with 47% of the respondents backing the Conservatives,compared to only 29% for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. In Ottawa’s parliamentary Press Gallery this fall, there was a sense of morbid fascination in the air at the spectacle of a government floundering in the throes of apparent self-destruction. As another telltale sign of the times, federal civil servants for the first time in years were
seriously contemplating the prospect of working for a Conservative administration. For all that, few of Clark’s Tories would be so foolish as to assume that the outcome of the next election—still two years away—is a foregone conclusion. Both Trudeau and the Liberal Party have proved their formidable regenerative powers in the past, most recently in the Grit landslide of 1974. Even so, there is every indication that the Trudeau government is now facing its most severe challenge ever, and that the comeback attempt it is currently mounting will have to be either a bravura performance, or a last hurrah (see following story).
Thus poised as a prime minister-in-waiting, Clark took off this month on a 17-day, six-nation European tour that was clearly designed to lend the diffident, baby-faced leader an aura of mature credibility. Before plunging into a round of meetings with European political leaders, financiers and generals, Clark found time for a spot of early campaigning at the Canadian Forces base at Lahr, West Germany. There, the buoyant Tory leader won his biggest laugh from some 500 Canadian servicemen by referring to the Prime Minister’s official Ottawa residence as “the place where the other guy keeps my swimming pool.” Later in Brussels, Clark met
with Belgian Premier Leo Tindemans, Joseph Luns, the NATO secretary-general, and François-Xavier Ortoli, president of the European Community Commission. From Brussels, Clark headed for Bonn and talks with West German leaders and was scheduled to visit Paris and Rome—where an audience was arranged with Pope Paul—before concluding his whirlwind tour with a visit to London for talks with Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey and Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland.
Altogether, it has been a giddy, perhaps even frightening, ascent for the young man from High River, Alberta, who has been an MP for less than half as long as Pierre Trudeau has been PM. AS recently as last February, he was a long-shot candidate who eked out victory in the Tory leadership race by a mere 65 votes over the runner-up, Quebec’s Claude Wagner. Now, after his stunningly swift ascent in the polls, Charles Joseph Clark, 37, could by 1978 emerge as Canada’s youngest prime minister and the first Tory to take up residence at 24 Sussex Drive in 13 years.
How has it all come about? Since he succeeded Robert Stanfield as Tory chieftain, Clark has deliberately kept a low national profile, preferring to devote his time to a careful reconstruction of the party organi-
zation across the country and to low-key grass roots campaigning. His travels in Canada during the past seven months have covered more than 50,000 miles by air and taken him to some 50 cities and towns. Clark’s peregrinations have also led to grumbles that he is too rarely seen in the House of Commons. But Tory strategists believe that his main-streeting is beginning to pay off. People are curious and often spontaneously approach Clark to take his measure, aides report. That is a welcome change for the Tories. “When I was with Stanfield,” says a ConservativeA)fficial, “I used to look around and think there was a glass wall around us.”
Clark may also have picked up points by prudently refraining from laying down the law on the policy front—to the point of admitting that it could be a year or so before he is really ready to do so. That strategy dovetails neatly with Clark’s perception of the current political mood: he believes that voters have grown disillusioned with leaders on Galluping white chargers who offer brave new visions—visions that almost invariably grow dim later on. As a result, Clark in some respects comes across as a Canadianized version of the Jimmy Carter political model, lacking precision over details but projecting an image of politics on a smaller scale, of a return to leaders with rural roots, of simplicity and honesty. The accompanying, implicit message—which many voters may find reassuring—is that here, in the era of Big Government and bigger crises, is the man who will slow things down.
At the same time, Clark has tended to present Canadians with the fairly unusual spectacle of a political leader who tries to look on the bright side of things. Just as he scrupulously avoided attacking his opponents during the Conservative leadership race, he aims now to avoid depressing voters with a message of gloom and doom. Typically, in Saskatoon last month, Clark lectured Westerners of the Tory heartland
on the dangers of harboring a bitterness against the national government. “Throughout our history,” he noted, “there have been two opposite tones in which Westerners have approached national affairs. One has been a critical tone, finding faults in national arrangements, acting as a minority with a grievance. The other has been a confident tone, proposing growth and innovating, acting as leaders in Canadian government.” Clark sees himself as a product of the second strain. “We have more to offer,” he says, “than grievance.”
Yet even though Clark may be striking responsive chords with Canadians, it is equally clear that his greatest political asset so far has been earned by defaultthanks to the Trudeau government’s own self-inflicted wounds. For an opposition party to make headway, says Bill Neville, Clark’s chief of staff and an ex-Liberal turned Tory, “there has to be a negative base to begin with. Without that, you can walk on water and all you get is a pollution charge.” Obviously, the Liberals’ very negative present standing with Canadians has provided a large part of the Tories lead in the polls. Now, says Neville, the trick is to hang on to that lead by convincing electors that the Conservatives are “a competent, honest alternative.” As the approach of the next election forces Clark into a more aggressive pursuit of that aim, his potential liabilities and those of his party may be-
come more apparent. Some party workers fear that Clark has already grown overconfident. There is concern, too, over the paucity of strong cabinet material in the Tory ranks and over Clark’s propensity for surrounding himself with a plethora of advisers offering conflicting views (see box). Despite his get-acquainted tours across Canada, Clark still is saddled with the Joe “Who” label which was hung on him last February. Nor could Clark by any stretch of the imagination be called charismatic. “He is intelligent, but there’s no warmth about the man,” observed a Common Market official in Brussels this month. Absurd though it may seem, Clark could even be hurt by wife Maureen McTeer’s desire to be known by her maiden name* Says a Toronto broker: “I can’t trust a man who doesn’t wear the pants in his family.”
A far more serious threat is posed by the traditional Tory propensity for fratricide, currently manifested in the High Noonstyle showdown looming in Alberta’s Bow River riding between Clark and Tory MP Stan Schumacher. Both men lost their old constituencies in the redistribution that will take effect before the next election, and both want to run in Bow River. Already deeply embarrassed by the dispute, Clark now has the choice of either suffering a serious loss of face by backing down,
or of forcing the issùe at the risk of opening the old split between the party centre and the Western rump of Diefenbaker Tories.
Quebec is another important potential trouble spot for Clark and his party. With only four members in the province, the party, in theory, has almost nowhere to go but up. One prospect is that with Social Credit Leader Réal Caouette seriously ill, and without a strong successor in the offing, the Tories might be able to pick up some of the 11 Socred seats in Quebec. But there is also a good possibility that the pitfalls of fede.al bilingualism policies could upset Tory hopes. To his credit, Clark rejected the suggestion by some Conservatives that the party write off bilingualism—and Quebec—in favor of winning votes in English Canada. But some Western Conservatives remain opposed to bilingualism, and the Liberals may well try to exploit that division in the party by forcing a vote on the issue when parliament reconvenes in mid-October.
Another problem may be looming in the person of Claude Wagner as chairman of the party’s shadow cabinet, a post that Wagner quit this month on the grounds that he was too busy with his job as foreign affairs critic. Wagner subsequently accompanied Clark on part of his European junket, but seemed rather bored by it all. At one point, Wagner canceled a series of meetings with NATO officials in Brussels and instead went shopping for lace with his
*Ms. McTeer is expecting the Clarks’first baby at the end of October.
wife Gisèle. Clark has denied that there is a rift between himself and Wagner. But there was speculation that Wagner will not run in the next election, leaving the Tories without a big-name francophone candidate in Quebec.
Clark’s return from Europe September 22 is likely to mark the opening of a new phase in his leadership, involving more time spent in Ottawa and a greater emphasis on policy formulation. Clark plans to appoint a 20-member advisory council to study policy options over the next few years. In the meantime, Clark will start the ball rolling with a series of speeches on economic policy and national goals. In broad terms, Clark is expected to emphasize the need to move away from the federal policy innovations and heavy government spending of the Sixties and early Seventies, while working to reduce public expectations—a theme that Trudeau himself has grown fond of propounding.
If Clark succeeds in leading the Tories to power, what kind of government would he bring to Canadians? Clark himself may not be sure yet, since he has admitted in the past that “my approach to politics is not policy oriented.” Still, a broad policy outline is discernible. A Tory government would likely tighten up social welfare programs such as family allowance and unemployment insurance. A Conservative administration could also be expected to provide more breaks for small business—a traditional Tory plank—seek a relaxation of tensions between Canada and the United States, and in Europe take a tough anti-Communist, pro-NATO stance. At home, one of the most important differences under a Conservative regime would probably be a move away from the Liberals’ centralizing tendencies toward a more conciliatory attitude to the provinces. Says Clark: “I think this country is too big to be defined at the centre.”
Before any of that can happen, the Conservatives must first take office and, despite the good news from the polls, the Tories are nervously aware that there may be rocky times ahead. “We’re going to get knocked in the months ahead,” says Bill Neville, who is keenly aware that the press has a tradition of taking on the front-runner. But of all the imponderables that loom over the Conservatives’ chances in that next election, perhaps the most baffling one of all remains the leadership potential of Clark himself, who has yet to come out fighting—as he eventually must—and who remains, to a large degree, an enigmatic and elusive figure on the political landscape.
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