CANADA

An endorsement or a finesse?

MARY JANIGAN December 20 1982
CANADA

An endorsement or a finesse?

MARY JANIGAN December 20 1982

An endorsement or a finesse?

It was a declaration of interdependence that startled and intrigued the divided Conservative party. In a crowded salon of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal last week, Tory star Brian Mulroney pledged his allegiance to leader Joe Clark because the party should be “getting on with the business of forming a government.” Seated beside his longtime rival, a beaming Clark declared that Mulroney’s backing was “most timely,” because it comes on the brink of a late-January party meeting in Winnipeg at which delegates will be asked whether or not they want a leadership convention. “It’s helpful to me and it’s helpful to the party,”

Clark admitted. The guarded endorsement is also likely to be helpful to Mulroney— no matter what happens in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, in a party riddled with factions, the novelty of the peacekeeping mission provoked delight in the Clark camp, momentary despair in the anti-Clark camp and another burst of gossip in the ongoing leadership saga.

The seeds for Mulroney’s surprising conversion were sown last

July when he joined columnist Dalton Camp, former PC Canada Fund chairman Finlay MacDonald and three other Tories at a northern Quebec fishing camp. During the frank late-night talk sessions, Camp spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for politicians to put the good of the nation and the party ahead of personal gain. He also mused about his involvement in the 1967 convention that removed former Tory leader John Diefenbaker and he pointed out that the party never forgives its rebels, or “termites,” as Diefenbaker forces described them.

Mulroney, the president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, was apparently affected by Camp’s idealism—and by his practical advice. But he had no contact in Clark’s inner circle until MacDonald joined the office last month. In late November Mulroney asked MacDonald to lunch in Toronto and, over dessert, he displayed the handwritten text of the statement that he delivered 10 days later— almost unchanged. “I was delighted, absolu lutely delighted,” says i MacDonald. “There z were no demands and

no deals—and that statement means a lot. For every one letter that this party gets saying there will be no money until there is a new leader, there are 50 coming in that say there will be no money until you get your act together. Mulroney’s move is the first concrete example of the party moving in a united way.”

For Clark the benefits are clear. In spite of his party’s high standings in the polls, the anti-Clark factions have flourished. Early this month House Leader Erik Nielsen provoked a bitter caucus split by branding the anti-Clark forces as traitors to the party. And last week Toronto Sun Editor Peter Worthington, who ran unsuccessfully against his party as an Independent in an October byelection, sparked another divisive showdown when Clark supporters challenged his claim to attend the January meetings as a delegate. Although Clark requires the approval of only 51 per cent of the delegates to avoid a convention, his backers are aiming to improve on a 1981 vote when fully one-third of the delegates called for a leadership convention. Acrimony does not help Clark’s campaign. Accordingly, when one of the most attractive contenders for his position said that Clark should be kept on the job, it was not surprising that the leader grinned. Nonetheless, Clark should not count too much on Mulroney’s backing. Last February two Mulroney men snared the only two contested posts on the executive of the party’s Quebec wing. This, in turn, ensured that the majority of the Quebec delegates to the Winnipeg meeting will be Mulroney supporters. And, when Mulroney was asked last week if he will urge Quebec delegates to support Clark, he replied that he will not try to impose his view on them. “That means Joe had better not try to take Mulroney’s backing to the bank as collateral,” scoffed a member of the national executive.

For Mulroney the benefits are equally tangible. If Clark wins the January vote and then wins the next election, Mulroney will be an honored adviser and, at best, a cabinet minister. If Clark loses the January vote—or the next election—Mulroney can run for the leadership with clean hands and wide eyes. In the interval the anti-Clark forces are divided about the significance of his move. “It had a very deflating effect on all pro-review people initially but it has been absorbed and nothing has changed,” says a senior party executive who does not support Mulroney. A key Mulroney backer counters that “the bottom line is that Joe thinks he’s getting an endorsement, but he really got finessed by a master chess move.” Meanwhile, whatever the long-term meaning, Canadians could be assured that the long, cold winter will not be dull. -MARY JANIGAN in Ottawa.