The Tories’ watershed week

Carol Goar May 16 1983

The Tories’ watershed week

Carol Goar May 16 1983

The Tories’ watershed week


Carol Goar

For those with a taste for theatrics, the Tory leadership contest is a dramatic smorgasbord. Last week alone Ontario Premier William Davis said that he would not enter the race. Then, burglars stole $400,000 worth of jewels and other goods from candidate Peter Pocklington’s Chicago hotel room. A weekend meeting between Quebec leadership hopeful Brian Mulroney and Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed in the small Nova Scotia town of Antigonish added to the intrigue. In entertainment terms, the race equalled a three-ring circus.

But behind the scenes the fortunes of the three leading candidates, Joe Clark, Mulroney and John Crosbie, were subtly shifting. As the campaign moved into the final five-week stretch, it was clear that Clark had suffered a serious setback and that Crosbie was emerging as a man to watch. Two critical events made the week a watershed. The first was the aftershock of an ill-tempered all-candidates’ debate in Toronto, and the second was Davis’ departure. Each event left winners and losers in its wake, and each provided the Tories with

an unsettling reminder of the ugly divisive forces running through their ranks.

The all-candidates’ meeting was a rhetorical set piece that turned up some unscripted surprises. It was the first time all seven of the major leadership contenders had been given equal footing on a single platform. But it was clear from the outset that the handpicked

crowd of 2,300 was hos_

tile to Clark. When he spoke French, a noisy chorus of boos erupted in one part of the auditorium, which provoked Clark to turn strident and defensive. “I have worked to make this the party where the use of French would not be booed,” he declared angrily.

There was little doubt, even among Clark’s own supporters, that their candidate was the day’s big loser. “They were not booing French,” said eastern Ontario delegate Joan Guthrie, after

watching a broadcast of the debate.“ “They were booing Joe Clark’s attitudes toward them.’’ In losing his composures and his good humor, he also let slip his gentlemanly image, which has always been one of his political assets. Toronto lawyer Ronald Atkey, who served as employment minister in the short-lived Clark government, said the former leader “hurt his image as a consensus

_ builder.” And one of

Clark’s former senior aides trudged away from the meeting disen-

chanted and depressed. “He has underlined his image as the kind of politician who is good only in the back rooms,” he concluded.

The all-candidates’ meeting was soon overshadowed by Davis’

long-awaited announcement that he would not seek the leadership. Poz litical pundits were sur2 prised by the Davis decile sion—which ended a ¡± three-month flirtation with the press—but

many delegates were not. For farmer Douglas Rollins, owner of a service station and delivery business in Belleville, Ont., it was clear from the beginning that Davis had neither the support nor the necessary moxie of a riverboat gambler that it takes to win. Said Rollins: “He isn’t going to leap from one lily pad to another lily pad if the water is deep in between.”

Davis acknowledged at a Toronto news conference that there were sharks in that water. He noted drily that Lougheed, for one, was “not enthusiastic” about his candidacy.

Offstage, Davis’ advisers hinted that Lougheed had recently stepped up his campaign to block Davis’ entry into the race. Only a week before the same advisers were downplaying a DavisLougheed split, claiming that relations between the two men were so cordial that they had been known to watch football games together.

Last week, however,

Norman Atkins, the Toronto advertising executive who is one of Davis’ closest advisers, admitted that the relationship may have cooled.

Davis harbors no personal ill will toward the Albertan, said Atkins.

But he added that one of Lougheed’s closest contacts “told me that he [Lougheed] is pathological on the subject of Davis.”

Davis also faced hostility in Quebec—because he does not speak French and because of his long-standing refusal to make Ontario officially bilingual. Ironi_

cally, in the rest of the country he is widely resented for supporting Pierre Trudeau on constitutional and energy-pricing issues. “He didn’t want to spend the next six weeks defending himself for supporting Trudeau,” one aide confided. He would have also been resented and feared by other candidates as a threatening arriviste and—for a time at least—he would have been the prime target of their jibes. And, in the party’s increasingly powerful right wing, the Ontario premier is anathema for his government’s forays into the private sector, particularly the 1981 purchase of 25 per cent of Suncor Inc.

But the deciding factor for Davis may

have been a simple recognition that the delegate numbers he needed simply were not there. For Davis it was a particularly difficult decision because the leadership race is only a warm-up for an inevitable federal election campaign. One of the discreet premier’s most forthright remarks was made privately to his own caucus at Queen’s Park. He warned his followers to avoid getting too deeply involved in the squabble. According to MPP Morley Kells, Davis said,

“Remember, when it’s all over, these things can get rather bitter.”

In spite of the words of caution, Davis’followers—an estimated 300 of the 3,000 total delegates who will vote in Ottawa on June 11—suddenly had to decide where to throw their support. There was no shortage of offers. Mulroney flew to Toronto the day after Davis’ withdrawal for what his staff mysteriously called “private engagements,” mainly with fund raisers. Clark workers manned the phones almost immediately, trying to woo supporters, but Davis’ own failure to announce his support of Clark—as he has done in the past—sent a chill through the Clark

camp. Crosbie’s campaign manager, John Laschinger, confidently predicted, “I will do better than my fair share.” But by week’s end most of the big names in the Ontario contingent remained officially uncommitted—some said that they intended to stay that way until voting day, and others claimed that they were waiting and watching.

The fallout of the Davis announcement is difficult to measure precisely, but the premier’s withdrawal certainly altered the shape of the race. All of the candidates now know who the main players will be on June 11. But, more importantly, all of their prospects were affected in varying degrees.

Clark did not get Davis’ support, but he at least will not lose delegates to the popular premier. His organizers estimate that Clark could have lost as much as onequarter of his Ontario vote if Davis had entered the race. Clark himself responded to Davis’ decision by expressing relief—“not because of the possibility that it might limit my chances but more particularly because I think his candidacy might have been construed in a way that could have been harmful to the party.” As the most visible representative of the party’s moderate centre, Clark can now expect to pick up some of Davis’ similar middle-of-the-road support.

Crosbie benefited, too. A Davis candidacy would have “muddied the water,” in the words of one

_ key strategist. If Davis

had entered the race, Crosbie might have been forced to share the comfortable third-place position from which he hopes to charge up between the two obvious front-runners, Clark and Mulroney. The day before Davis announced his intentions, Laschinger said that the Ontario premier represented little threat. “If he wants to come in, he will have to follow up the middle ground after us.” But behind the bravado there was uneasiness. And when Davis finally bowed out, there were quiet sighs of relief in Crosbie’s headquarters.

The impact on Brian Mulroney was more difficult to assess. A Davis candidacy would have hurt him far less than

Clark or Crosbie. It might even have drawn Lougheed into the Mulroney camp. As a result, some of the Montrealer’s workers hoped that Davis would join the fray. But Mulroney’s Ontario chairman, Michael Meighen, is convinced that the gain would have been short-lived. In a final ballot runoif between Mulroney and anyone else, the man Mulroney feared most was Davis, he said. “If Davis could have got by the hurdle of the first ballot, he would have had a shot at it,” Meighen contended.

Most of the candidates will pick up pieces of Davis’ Ontario apparatus. In fact, large parts of it had scattered long before Davis made his final declaration. Most of the camps have Queen’s Park organizers in key positions—Crosbie’s campaign manager, John Laschinger, Mulroney’s campaign manager, Paul Weed, and Clark’s campaign manager, William McAleer, are all former Davis men.

As the eventful week drew to a close, each of the candidates faced new challenges. Clark, the gentleman who had slipped from his pedestal, had to find a way to regain his lost stature. If he failed, he could forfeit both the respect of some of his own supporters and his potential for gaining votes after the first ballot.

Crosbie, who now stands a strong third—possibly even second—must do his best to convince Clark’s supporters to choose him over the former prime minister. That would make him an ideal compromise candidate. At the same time, he has to keep his own delegates in line to be sure of making a strong firstballot showing.

For his part, Mulroney must prove to the delegates that he is more than a man with a mouthful of one-liners. With no political track record to fall back on, he has to prove—particularly outside Quebec, where he remains something of an unknown quantity— that he has policies and principles. Should he succeed, he might defuse what some Clark supporters—perhaps hyperbolically—refer to as a nascent ABM (Anybody But Mulroney) movement.

In the meantime, the best thing that could happen to Mulroney would be an endorsement from Lougheed. And—as he frequently manages to be—the Montrealer was in the right place at the right time. On Sunday afternoon Lougheed was to receive an honorary doctorate from St. Francis Xavier University. Sitting beside him on the platform was the university’s star alumnus and fund-raising chairman, Brian Mulroney. The script seemed almost too perfect. But winning the June 11 convention will take more than that kind of clever staging.

Susan Riley