Canada

WAITING IN THE WINGS

If a wounded Stockwell Day decides to throw in the towel, others are poised to try to unite the right

John Geddes May 7 2001
Canada

WAITING IN THE WINGS

If a wounded Stockwell Day decides to throw in the towel, others are poised to try to unite the right

John Geddes May 7 2001

WAITING IN THE WINGS

If a wounded Stockwell Day decides to throw in the towel, others are poised to try to unite the right

John Geddes

Peter MacKay was standing within arms length of the TV set in his Parliament Hill office one afternoon last week when CBC News-world went live with a fresh political opinion poll. As the results flashed up, the rangy Tory MP reached out and touched the screen, offering a little caress to his party’s new number—15-per-cent support nationwide, according to an April survey, up four points since January. The poll showed the Canadian Alliance, the Tories’ beleaguered rivals on the right, down four points to 19 per cent. “And this poll was taken before the latest bloodbath,” MacKay exulted, referring to the messy caucus and grassroots revolt that Alliance Leader Stockwell Day is struggling to contain. Too right. Soon afterward, a new poll taken just that week showed MacKay s party out in front—15 per cent to the Alliances 13.

With Day badly wounded, being Peter MacKay has lately become a heady occupation. His name appears near the top of any list—and just about every Ottawa pundit and political strategist has one— of politicians poised to reap benefits from Day’s deepening crisis. As Tory House leader, MacKay is easily the most prominent MP in Joe Clark’s caucus. Since Clark has signalled that he probably will not stay on to fight another election, Mac-

Kay, at just 35, is touted as a top contender to take over as leader one day. And if the Alliance doesn’t get its act together, and fast, being federal Tory boss will begin to look again like something bigger than running a political boutique.

As intriguing as his leadership prospects is MacKay’s influence in the on-again, offagain talks aimed at pulling the Conservative and Alliance parties towards a merger. He’s an outspoken Tory partisan in public, given to sounding downright gleeful about Day’s woes. But in private, MacKay is credited with being a personable player, building bridges to key Alliance figures, notably Chuck Strahl, who quit his job as Alliance House leader last week, along with longtime party stalwart Deborah Grey, who stepped down as deputy leader, and Grant McNally who quit as deputy House leader. A few others vented discontent, including Art Hanger who was fired as Alliance defence critic for openly calling for Day to resign.

The growing interest in MacKay’s political future is only one example of a much broader re-evaluation of talent on the political right. Two related guessing games are going on among political in-

siders. Assuming Clark leaves, who might continue his surprisingly effective work refurbishing the old Tory franchise? And if the newly emboldened Alliance dissidents succeed in pushing Day out, who might be tapped to restore that party’s dented credibility? The two questions get tangled together for those who expect unite-the-right efforts to bear fruit. In that case, a third arises. Is there a politician who commands enough support in both camps to lead a unified assault against the Liberals?

MacKay predicts that matchmaking aimed at marrying the right-ofcentre parties will now ease, as Day concentrates on shoring up his own crumbling position. “I suspect there will be a bit I of a bunker mentality in I the Alliance,” MacKay I told Macleans. He doesn’t " sound broken up about it. Asked about the widely held view that he revels in Day’s misfortunes, MacKay denies it—sort of. “I don’t particularly intend my comments to be provocative towards Stockwell Day or the Alliance,” he says, but can’t help adding: “I’m not a fan of either entity, to be quite honest.” Slamming Day is one thing, slighting the whole Alliance is another. That lack of tact puzzles political strategists who muse about harnessing MacKay’s smoothly confident political style. “I’m a fan of Peter’s,” says Rick Anderson, the veteran Alliance backroom operator, a former Preston Manning adviser who is close to those working to oust Day. “But if he is serious about leading a united right, I think he should start figuring out how to bridge the gulf between the two parties instead of driving a wedge between them.”

1 SUSPECT THERE WILL BE a bit of a bunker mentality in the Alliance,’ MacKay says

It is far from clear, though, that MacKay believes his Tories need to join forces with the Alliance’s core in Alberta and British Columbia. One approach discussed in Conservative circles is to focus on winning back right-leaning activists and voters mainly in Ontario where Day’s failure to make a breakthrough in last fall’s election was his biggest disappointment. Winning a big chunk of Ontario seats—while building on Tory strength in the Adantic provinces, MacKay’s home turf—could vault the Tories back to a respectable status in the House, where they now cling to survival with just 12 seats. “I wouldn’t rule out eclipsing the Alliance,” he says. “The tide is going out for them, especially in Ontario. And Ontario is so key, that’s just a political reality.”

If MacKay hints at a preference for the Tories fighting their way back to prominence, rather than negotiating a new political formation, that instinct fits his reputation for pugnaciousness. After winning Nova Scotia’s Pictou-AntigonishGuysborough riding in 1997, he arrived in Ottawa with his arm in a sling. He had badly dislocated his shoulder, one of many rugby injuries he rhymes off like badges of honour: “Broken my nose five times. Collapsed my eye socket. Broken an eardrum. Dislocated my shoulder and my knee.” (He plans to return to carrying

the ball for the Pictou County Senior Rugby Club this summer.)

Soon after arriving in Ottawa, MacKay was lifted to prominence in the Tory caucus by then-Leader Jean Charest. “He gave me responsibilities that I never dreamed of,” MacKay says. The fit was natural. Charest had been a loyal protégé of Brian Mulroney, while MacKay s father, Elmer MacKay, was a Mulroneyera cabinet minister, and remained a staunch defender of the former prime minister even after Mulroney’s popularity plummeted. As well, Charest’s rise to the Tory leadership when he was just 35—the same age MacKay is now—and after Kim Campbell had led the party to ruin in the 1993 election, provided an indelible lesson in the strange plot twists of political life. “It demonstrated how quickly things can fall apart,” MacKay reflects. “Or come together.” These days, things are falling apart for Day. Both Grey and Strahl are now touted as possible Alliance leaders should Day lose a vote at a party convention next April—or be forced to step down before then. But Day is fighting back. He is slated to deliver a new strategic plan to his fractious caucus this week. He flew to Alberta late last week to plead with disgrunded riding officials to give him time.

While Day scrambles, his adversaries, both inside and outside the Alliance, weigh their options. From his new vantage point—a position of strength getting stronger—MacKay strives to sound statesmanlike. “I have a fair degree of sympathy,” he claims, “for what is going on in their party.” It is the only time in the interview when MacKay s biggest political asset, a tone of unaffected, enthusiastic sincerity, utterly fails him.

Should Stockwell Day step down?

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