A night of the long knives?

John Hay October 20 1980

A night of the long knives?

John Hay October 20 1980

A night of the long knives?


John Hay

A sad, winter-grey fog had settled on Toronto and wrapped itself around the restaurant high in the

CN Tower by Lake Ontario. Inside, over half-eaten breakfasts, many of the Progressive Conservative candidates and their wives and workers were weeping. It was the day before the Feb. 18 federal election and they had gathered to hear Joe Clark speak bravely of his honest budget and their well-fought campaign. Then a pretty 12-year-old girl with a sweet voice sang Tomorrow, the wistful song from Annie, and the exhaustion of the campaign welled into despair for lost chances. Clark, poised and considerate, chatted with Tom Viersen, Tory riding president for York North, and later wrote a note of thanks to him and his wife, Cynthia, and the children. But by May, Viersen was chairman of the PC review committee—known in the party as the “dump Clark group.” Clark said it himself a week before the election when he mistook a supporter for a heckler at a rally in Prince Rupert, B.C.: “In the Tory party, it’s sometimes hard to tell who your friends are.”

The Conservatives will send more than 2,000 delegates to their next general meeting Feb. 27 to March 1, and party rules require a secret ballot to answer the question: “Do you wish to have a leadership convention?” This ritual invitation to insurrection was written into the party constitution at the urging of Robert Stanfield, himself a three-time loser, after the fratricidal wars of the “Diefenbaker removal.” The Tories have lost all but five federal elections in 50 years and the story of their leadership is a tale of recrimination and treachery. After every loss the same angry questions arise—who is to blame, and who can bring victory next time? And now, for all the goodwill Clark has won in the party and whatever control he has imposed on it, it is his turn to be tested.

For the record, Clark declares himself unworried by the mutters of dissension or—even more ominous—the sullen silence of erstwhile friends. In his Parliament Hill office, the same one he had as prime minister, he told Maclean's last week that the future of his tenure is simply not a problem. “I think there is a growing view that I am the best person to lead us through the next three and four years into the next election. It’s very hard to say this without sounding arrogant about it. I know this party, I know the country, I know the prime minister’s job, I know the leader of the opposition’s job. I am convinced there is nobody else in the country who can do what has to be done as well as I can.” On the other hand, he is building up a hectic schedule of speaking trips and fund-raising dinners over the coming weeks—just when ridings across the country will be choosing delegates for the convention. He furiously attacked the Liberal constitution package and will take the same line on the budget and energy policies yet to be seen. He has already taken the rap for the mistakes of his government, including the short shrift he and his cabinet gave to the party foot soldiers who helped put him into power: “The collective leadership of this party grew out of touch with the collective membership of the party, and we’ve already started steps to correct that.” Clark well knows of the resentment still aimed at his chief of staff, Bill Neville.

“I might have embarked on a different course,” says Tom Viersen, “if Bill Neville had returned my phone calls.” Viersen isn’t the only party worker who figures he got his MP reelected with more hindrance than help from Clark; and he is one of many who resented being shut out of the Clark inner circle during that brief spell of power. What sets him apart is his reaction. By day, Viersen is a properly suited financial manager at IBM’s head office in Don Mills, Ont. After hours, phone and pamphlet, he and his review committee, including his MP, John Gamble, are trying to put Clark through the challenge of a leadership contest. Committee flyers carefully deny it’s a dumpClark operation: “The committee simply wants a leadership convention that the best available leader will chosen—Joe Clark or otherwise.” It’s bland disclaimer no Tory believes. Dal-

ton Camp, who should know, wrote recently that “Clark may be the first Tory leader in history to learn about every plot against him at firsthand.” Sure enough, Gamble told Clark when they met on a plane last spring that he would press for a leadership review. But it is a tribute to Clark’s personal hold on the party at this point that the committee has avoided frontal assault. In fact, its founding members in the spring swore to keep their names secret; only Viersen and Review News editor John Morrison have gone public, and they won’t name the others—the six members of their steering committee and about 40 other activists across the country. But the committee must soon come out of the closet when its members start trying to influence selection of convention delegates and lobbying those already chosen. They’re scrambling to assemble a mailing list; Clark’s party headquarters in Ottawa wouldn’t give them a copy of the official membership list, claiming it would be a breach of policy.

The Viersen group suffers two weaknesses: it has no champion to offer as successor to Clark; and it is identified with the right wing of a party whose mainstream now knows it must broaden its appeal to voters (women, the young, the urban) if it is ever to win a Commons majority. But it can prey on the doubts of a far more dangerous, more varied element of the party—active Tories who will attend the convention and who have not been persuaded that Clark has the right stuff to win elections govern well. Toronto MP John Bosley—a strong Clark supporter—guesses at a convention held today a full 35 cent would vote for a leadership contest. That would be a serious, even if lethal, rebuff to Clark. Dartmouth, MP Michael Forrestall is one of several in the caucus who haven’t decided they will vote, but he is beginning

think the leader’s several virtues aren’t considered adequate by the voters: “It’s just something you have or you don’t have. And I don’t think Joe has it.” Around the country, judgments on Clark are mixed. Saskatchewan MLA Bob Andrew, who helped Clark into the leadership in 1976, speaks for other westerners in laying some blame for Clark’s election failure at Ontario’s feet: “The feeling in Ontario was that things were getting away from them. They are losing control of the levers of power and the Conservative party was moving west.” Chuck Cook, MP for North Vancouver-Burnaby and president of the B.C. Tories, thinks Clark’s future rides on his performance in the next four months: “If he stumbles or falls between now and February, it is entirely possible he could face a leadership convention.” Quebec, though it produced just one Tory seat in February, might be strongly pro-Clark because he has personally installed much of the organization there in his struggle to secure a bleu beachhead. The Atlantic region harbors a special grievance, voiced by Nova Scotia MP and PC President Bob Coates: the Clark cabinet’s failure to dispense patronage jobs.

Clark’s chosen response to these sounds of discontent is to make a vigorous show of leadership in the House. But last week’s debate on the constitution underscored the fragility of Clark’s position in the coming months. There was, first, a deep split within his caucus about a central part of the Trudeau plan: entrenchment of rights is supported by some Tories, opposed by others. Then there was the embarrassment caused Ontario MPs by Premier William Davis’ intrusive call on all MPs to support the Trudeau program. There was no apology from Davis last week when the two spoke at a PC dinner in the nest of the Tory Ontario establishment, Toronto’s Albany Club. So Clark was left to barrack at process rather than content—with one exception: he warned, with genuine cause, against the enormous power in the clause permitting future constitutional change by national referendum. Thus armed, a government could presumably enflame public opinion, as in the 1970 October crisis, in support of retraction of the very rights it now seeks to entrench.

As Clark moves to shore up his leadership, moreover, he faces a grievous double bind. After his professional lifetime in Tory politics, his base of support may be periously limited. MPs and their workers who won last February can assure themselves that they did it despite an unpopular leader; those who lost can console themselves that it was because of the leader. Neither need owe much fealty to Clark. The fact that even the Clark-appointed, young-organizer class in the party is withholding outright commitment must be worrying. His larger problem, as he tells Tories everywhere, is to expand the base of the party itself. It ran third among voters under 35 last time and took fewer than 30 per cent of votes among low-income families. The catch, as the party’s own polls show, is that by now voters identify the Conservatives with Clark just as they link Pierre Trudeau to the Grits; the Tories are tarred with Clark’s reputation, good or bad. Lawrence Wolf, adman to the New Democrats and speunderdog brands, says selling Clark to the public now is an immense problem: “Canadians like their leaders larger than life. Clark is smaller than life.” Can Clark increase the popularity of a party for which he is himself the primary image? That’s what his fellow Tories would like to know,

With files from

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

in Winni-


Dale Eisler

in Regina,

David Folster

in Fred-



Vic Parsons

in Vancouver.