Whatever Ontario Premier William Davis decides about his political future this month, he has already established himself as one of the most calculating flirts in Canadian politics. For weeks panting aides and frantic reporters have pursued the phlegmatic—but welcoming—premier. The question on every lip: will he or will he not run for the leadership of the federal Conservative party? Last week Davis’ coy courtship took a more determined turn when he met privately with supporters of former leadership candidate Peter Blaikie. That contact— which Davis maintains was the first he has had in terms of a possible candidacy—plus a Canadian Press poll, which said that 600 of 1,500 delegates surveyed were still uncommitted, could be critical factors in the decision that he has agonized over. Said Hugh Segal, a former Davis aide: “I haven’t slept for seven days and I don’t think the premier has either.”
Davis and his aides spent an anxious week by the telephone, waiting, in particular, for calls from grassroots Tories in the West, Quebec and the Maritimes to learn where delegates were leaning. Other supporters engaged in what one called “number crunching”—a highly speculative attempt at guessing how many delegates might vote for Davis on the crucial second ballot at the June 12 leadership convention. With all 3,000 delegates chosen, Davis spent last weekend juggling numbers—and the knowledge that he must decide soon.
According to friends of the premier, Davis has sound reasons for not wanting to run. For one thing, he hates to fly—and it is a long bus ride from Victoria to St. John’s. For another, he is a renowned homebody who balks at spending more than one night at a time away from his beloved Brampton home. At 53, and after 12 years as premier, Davis has a certain harmony in his life: a solid majority at Queen’s Park, a loyal caucus, winter vacations at his Florida condominium and summers at the island cottage on Georgian Bay. To trade all that for the unrelenting demands of
a national campaign and the traditionally divided Tory caucus in Ottawa seems like a poor swap. “Who needs it?” asks Edwin Goodman, a prominent Toronto lawyer and Davis intimate.
In addition to Goodman, Davis’ wife, Kathleen, is against moving to the Ottawa hot seat. Publicly retiring but privately influential, Kathy Davis values quiet family life. However, she is considered so crucial to her husband’s decision that recently two of his top ad-
visers—advertising executive Norman Atkins and former aide Hugh Segal— took her to lunch to twist her arm. There are even reports in Davis circles that some Tories presented her with a copy of Residences, Maureen McTeer’s pictorial history of Ottawa’s official houses—including the prime minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive.
Whatever his wife thinks, Davis will not enter the race unless he can win— both the leadership and the bigger prize of becoming prime minister. Certainly last week’s Gallup poll—giving the Tories an astonishing 52 per cent and the Liberals an all-time low of 27 per cent— was welcome news at Queen’s Park. But it is by no means certain that Davis can clear the first hurdle.
He speaks no French and has virtually no support in Quebec. Perhaps
even more importantly, he will have trouble winning over western Tories, who still resent him for backing Ottawa on the Constitution and energy. Said Red Deer, Alta., boutique owner Yvonne Johnson, past-president of the local federal Tory association: “Cozying up to Trudeau hasn’t helped him at all.” Besides, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who controls the largest single bloc of uncommitted delegates (75 votes), is expected to oppose Davis vigorously. The Alberta premier has even set up a tribunal of senior cabinet and caucus members who have a standardized set of questions for all prospective leadership candidates as they campaign through the province in mid-May. Despite grumbles about an “inquisition,” no candidate has yet refused the interrogation.
But optimists in the Davis camp are not overly worried about Alberta. They believe that their man will steal support from Joe Clark in Ontario—and from Ontario MPs David Crombie and Michael Wilson as they drop out at the convention. They also believe that the Brian Mulroney campaign has nowhere left to grow. “If he [Davis] goes,” said his press aide, Denis Massiert cotte, “it will be because he is convinced Clark 3 and Mulroney are at the I end of their rope.” â In Toronto last week £ freshly minted Senator 1 William Kelly, Davis’ s close friend, said that because of “the obligation of special competence,” Davis has a “duty” to run. In Ottawa eastern Ontario MP John Ellis, another Davis backer, proclaimed bluntly: “We need a prime minister who doesn’t use four-letter words.”And at Queen’s Park, Ontario Treasurer Frank Miller gave 3to-1 odds that Davis, nearing the end of his tenure as premier, would be tempted by Ottawa. “He is still too young to retire. There are only so many football games you can watch,” said Miller, alluding to a favorite Davis pastime.
For Davis, a man who hates confrontation and has elevated blandness to a political attribute, Ottawa’s fractious atmosphere may be eminently resistible. But whatever happens, when Davis drops his final veil he will be ending one of the most virulent bouts of spring fever to grip Ontario in years.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.