Cover

Reversal of Fortune

Being the political underdog is unusual for Preston Manning

Brian Bergman July 10 2000
Cover

Reversal of Fortune

Being the political underdog is unusual for Preston Manning

Brian Bergman July 10 2000

Reversal of Fortune

Being the political underdog is unusual for Preston Manning

Brian Bergman

The setting put Preston Manning in a nostalgic frame of mind. In his only public appearance in Alberta last week, Manning addressed about 200 supporters in a cramped banquet hall in Sherwood Park, a bedroom community just east of Edmonton. Nearby, noted Manning, was the dairy farm where he grew up, and not too far away sat the Alberta legislature where Manning—the son of longtime Alberta premier Ernest Manning—spent a good part of his childhood. After a lifetime immersed in politics, the 58-year-old Manning had returned to his roots, but as something he had rarely been in this part of the world: an underdog. Outflanked in his native province—and much of the rest of the

country—by fellow Albertan Stockwell Day in the first round of the Canadian Alliance leadership vote, Manning pleaded for a better showing on the July 8 runoff ballot. “I need your support,” he said. “Can I count on you?”

Friends and longtime associates say it is extremely unusual to hear Manning ask for help. Reserved and analytical by nature, Manning tends to run a one-man show. Fie writes most of his own speeches and is known to micromanage the details of any campaign he wages. In the past two federal elections, the strategy paid off handsomely, as Manning led the former Reform party from obscurity to official opposition status. But when he tried the same tactics in the run-up to the June 24 leadership vote, the results proved almost fatal. “Manning was carrying the campaign on his own shoulders,” says Ray Speaker, a former Reform MP and Alberta MLA who has been a close friend of Manning’s since they met at the University of Alberta 40 years ago. “But in a leadership

race, you need a well-oiled machine with people out there ready to network for you. That didn’t happen and that’s where the campaign fell to pieces.”

In an attempt to put that campaign back on track, Manning last week sought out and secured some high-profile support. Following his Sherwood Park speech, he jetted to Toronto to bask in the endorsement of Tom Long, the Ontario political strategist who finished third on the June 24 ballot. Long’s move gave Manning’s flagging campaign a much-needed boost. But its effect may be blunted by the fact that many former Long supporters are now backing Day.

In any event, Manning’s uphill battle represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes. A student of politics, Manning has been touting a coalition like the Alliance since his days as an assistant to his father, the premier, in the 1960s. He is also famous as a political tactician—a man who anticipates his opponents’ every move as well as the mood of the electorate. So did he not see that, in spawning a new party, he would inevitably spark demands for a new leader? “Oh yes, he understood that,” says Speaker. “But he didn’t think it would take on such a strong element in the campaign. Preston has always thought that people would be led by ideas and not because someone was popular or had a certain charisma.” Ironically, the man of ideas is now waging trench warfare to keep his job and a shot at the one he covets—prime minister. He assured his Alberta audience last week that he would never go negative—then proceeded to raise the spectre of Day as “the Alliances Kim Campbell.” He also made a pointed reference to Day’s controversial opposition to abortion and to expanded rights for gays—positions Manning shares, but tends to deal with more circumspectly. “Who,” he asked, “can best deal with these delicate and yet necessary moral and social issues without putting their foot into it?”

Manning reversed tactics on another front as well. Normally open with the media, he spent the week dodging questions. After the Sherwood Park speech, he pressed through a phalanx of television cameras and microphones. “We’re going to win,” he kept repeating, like a man who was trying to convince himself. On a personal level, colleagues disagree on the toll the battle is taking on Manning. Interim Alliance Leader Deborah Grey, a staunch Manning loyalist, says he is unfazed. “I don’t think he gets hurt feelings or sulky,” she says. Speaker takes a different view. “I’m sure he’s going through a very difficult period,” he says. “Politics is not a gentle, kindly sport.” G3