Christine Elliott’s ace in the hole

It seems like only yesterday that Christine Elliott was unceremoniously being dumped for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in favour of an upstart named Patrick Brown. 

Now the former MPP is back for a third shot at the leadership of a party thrown into turmoil by the resignation of her former rival and his handpicked party president Rick Dykstra over sexual misconduct allegations.

Why is she running? 

That’s the question that’s left many party insiders and Queen’s Park observers scratching their heads. The answer is not so simple, but has a lot to do with Vic Fedeli, the PCs’ interim leader, dropping out of the race. That was after Fedeli found out that Elections Ontario might see his acting as interim leader while campaigning for the job permanently as an unfair advantage over his competitors and possible contravention of election rules. 

The 2015 loss against Brown was particularly tough for the party veteran. She looked to be a shoo-in, having garnered the support of 19 of 28 caucus members and the respect of party faithful from her late husband Jim Flaherty’s years of service. But it was the social conservatives among rank and file who couldn’t get past her more progressive politics that did her in. She resigned the seat she held for nine years a week before Brown’s election to provincial parliament in a by-election in August 2015, and dropped out of sight. 

She wouldn’t resurface until July 2016, to take a Liberal appointment as the province’s first patient ombudsman. Now she’s come out of nowhere to try and save the party that rejected her. 

Her entry into the race was welcomed with open arms in some quarters. Finally, an adult in the race with some Queen’s Park experience to take on pretender Doug Ford and fresh face Caroline Mulroney, daughter of the infamous former PM. 

Elliott is the most recognizable name in the race. And a number of polls have put her out in front. 

But those measure general public support, not support in the party itself, which right now is a mess. 

Can Elliott unify a broken party?

Elliott seems to have learned a lesson from her last failed attempt, cozying up to the party’s right flank shortly after she announced that she was in to say she would not support a carbon tax, a key plank in the so-called People’s Guarantee, developed under Brown. Rural MPP Todd Smith was also named Elliott’s campaign co-chair this week. 

But she’s also met with some prickly attacks from operatives in the Mulroney camp quick to attack her for taking a “cushy” Liberal appointment after dropping out of politics. Critics have also pointed out that Elliott is a two-time loser for the party leadership, and that what the PCs really need is new blood. 

It’s a free for all 

With the shortest contest to a party leadership in recent memory – and perhaps a direct line to the premier’s office, given Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s record unpopularity – its already gotten testy. 

The coalescing of former Brown campaign chair Andrew Boddington and deputy campaign chair Dan Robertson around Mulroney has fuelled speculation that there was a conspiracy to turf Brown within hours of news that CTV was preparing to air sexual misconduct allegations against the former PC leader. 

According to one party source, Brown was hung out to dry by his former advisors. 

He expected them to be in the room with him when he read a statement prepared by them in which he denied the allegations, only not to find himself alone when he entered the room, and to discover minutes later that they had resigned on Twitter. 

While Robertson et al formed part of Brown’s team of top advisors at Queen’s Park, they were not part of his kitchen cabinet. Among Robertson et al there was also the widely-held notion as the election drew nearer that Brown was not amounting to much of a leader and that those shortcomings would show up on the campaign trail. The party had spent millions on ads to promote Brown and the People’s Guarantee, only to see the needle on his approval ratings among voters barely budge. So they jumped.

Another former Brown bigwig, key organizer Walied Soliman, has also defected to the Mulroney camp, amid reports the party’s computerized membership management system was hacked in early November. 

Turns out the party’s membership numbers may have been inflated by as much as 67,000 members. 

FORD FACTOR

In a campaign where candidates have a short time frame to sign members – the deadline is February 16 – social media will play a huge role in attracting new members.  

Elliott has the remnants of an organization from her failed 2015 bid to work from. Ford has his own base. Mulroney, who has lived in the U.S. until recently, has no real connection to the rank and file of the party outside her father’s name recognition. Some historians in the party are comparing her attempted end-run to the leadership to her father’s short path to power when he organized behind the scenes against Joe Clark to win the Conservative Party leadership in 1983.

Her lack of political experience has also come through in early interviews. But perhaps her biggest hurdle is the perception she’s been parachuted in by party higher ups anxious to rebrand the PCs with a woman at the helm who isn’t Christine Elliott. 

The social conservatives in the PC caucus who are aligning themselves with Ford are particularly pissed about the takeover by so-called elites. Could we see Ford throw his support behind Elliott in a bid to head off Mulroney? It’s a distinct possibility given the fact Ford’s favorability ratings put him significantly behind both Elliott and Mulroney. 

Ford supported Elliott last time. They’re family friends. And throwing his support behind Elliott would put him in line for a coveted key role in a party that only a few months ago under Brown told him they didn’t want him to run for them in Etobicoke North. The worm has turned.    

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

Patrick Brown sighting 

The former PC leader resurfaced on Twitter Tuesday afternoon for the first time since those TV images of him exiting Queen’s Park chased by cameras shortly after a press conference at which he vowed to fight the sexual allegations against him.

Brown thanked his supporters and vowed that “The truth will come out.

“#MeToo can be a tool to lift society and I applaud that effort. False allegations, however, undermine that good work,” he tweeted.

Word on the street is that Brown has hired an investigative firm to probe the possible involvement of one PC caucus member in the leaking of details of the sexual misconduct allegations to a CTV reporter at Queen’s Park. One of the allegations involves a constituency assistant while Brown was a backbencher in Stephen Harper’s government. Another from 10 years ago involves a woman who says she was in high school at the time. 

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