Joe Clark faced the latest test of his Tory leadership last week and won in a canter—and a Gallup. Despite his best efforts and the party’s good fortunes, however, the Conservatives still seethe with suspicions and discontents. Clark’s detractors have so far preferred a whispering campaign to a frontal assault, but their impact has been damaging nonetheless.
Aware of the corroding effects of internal conflict, Clark still draws comfort from opinion poll success. In an interview with Maclean's, he said: “If we can do this well under the pressures we’ve had this year, and be where we are, we can do immensely better next year.”
What bucked up Clark was Gallup’s report that the Tories were favored by 42 per cent of decided voters surveyed last month, against 38 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the New Democrats. (Given the Liberals’ oversupply of Quebec votes, those figures would return a Tory majority government in an election.) Only twice have
the Tories scored better since Clark won the leadership in February, 1976. He gained a 43-per-cent showing in the afterglow of the convention and 45 per cent in November, 1978, when the Liberals were unusually unpopular. Even more heartening for Clarkites is the fact that while the Liberals wobbled around 40 per cent for months, the Conservatives have been steadily rising.
With remarkably good humor, Clark frankly admits that in a year of Tory turmoil—marked by the divisive convention last February—some of their success must be put down to Liberal unpopularity. The Liberals heaved the country into a year-long struggle over the constitution just as it was suffering a deteriorating economy with record interest rates and witnessing a federalprovincial fight over oil prices. Allan MacEachen’s budget, brought down just after the Gallup was taken, promises another ruckus. At week’s end he was perusing the complaints from a broad sector and hoped to propose changes before the Commons’ Christmas recess. In all, said Clark, “they’ve made my job easier than my party has.”
The skirmish that Clark won last week was over an innocuous-sounding issue: the date for the next Conservative convention. The party constitution provides for a general meeting every two years. But for months anti-Clark elements have been pressing for a convention nextfall. The objectof that strategy would be to bushwhack Clark at the convention by voting for a leadership contest.
As party president Peter Blaikie and his 31-member executive committee gathered in Ottawa, it was clear in advance that Clark had the votes to keep his 1983 convention. The question was whether any of the heavies from across the country would dare challenge the leader openly. The answer was no. Only briefly was an earlier convention mentioned. Then the committee quickly set-
tled on holding the next one in Winnipeg, Jan. 25 to 29. It also agreed, as Clark wished, to stage a smaller policy conference in Toronto next May—intended, Clark says, to give a positive cast to a party which is, necessarily, negativist in Opposition.
Clark’s problem is that winning any number of these preliminaries never quite brings him complete victory. While the committee was doing his bidding, parliamentary corridors were hissing with varied rumors that a heavy majority of his own MPs favored an early convention. Clark, who consulted his regional caucus chairman Wednesday, insists that a majority backs him and that the stir is being caused by “a very small group of the perpetually unhappy—and one or two others who think that they are helping someone who they think might be a leadership candidate.”
No such candidate has declared himself (or herself). Indeed, Clark’s worst enemy is the anonymous, off-the-record, backbiting attack that diminishes his authority but remains immune from retaliation. Hardly a handful of MPs have openly and directly challenged Clark’s leadership, but hardly more than that will vigorously defend him in public.
Clark himself professes that reports of party dissidence are greatly overblown. He says Tories know that they have a simple choice: “We can set the agenda of the nation right now with the bad policies of the Liberals, or we can set the agenda with an internal dispute.” And why not bring the leadership issue to a head with an early convention to settle it? Because, says Clark, the Diefenbaker wars, Robert Stanfield’s tribulations and his own battles show that the tactic does not work. Sadly, with a faraway gaze, Clark concludes: “You never bring it to a head. That’s the trouble with the party. You never bring it to a head.”
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