The Magazine


Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By DAVID FRUM
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Not a very skillful tactician, Charest failed to notice that the middle had moved from where it had been the last time he paid attention to it. Between 1993 and 1997, the governing Liberals had held the line on government spending and reduced Canada's once-terrifying budget deficit to virtually zero. Since 1997, Charest has found himself floundering to the Liberals' left, at the head of a party that was too leftish for the country's growing Right, but still too rightist for the country's shrinking Left, too French for the English, too English for the French.

But while Charest's orneriness has crippled the Conservatives, it also harmed Reform. The Conservative party, bloodied though it is, is not quite dead yet. It still wins the support of enterprise-minded voters, especially in the cities of Ontario (where about one-third of the country lives), who are put off by Reform's faint social conservatism and its penchant for opportunistic populist stunts, and who fear that Reform's unyielding opposition to special status for Quebec might precipitate a costly and dangerous secession crisis. The Conservatives can count on perhaps 10 percent of the vote for at least one more election. In a five-way split, that's enough to keep the Liberals in power and Reform out.

If Canada's conservatives are ever again to form a national government, either the parties of the right must merge, or one must die. A merger would have been wiser: It would have been quicker, and it might have imported into a united party of the right the Conservatives' virtues: their greater experience of government, their better understanding of Quebec. But if Charest delayed the merger solution, he can at least claim credit for accelerating the extinction alternative. The party is in much worse shape today than it would have been had he showed more sense, which means that this fratricidal conflict is that much closer to a resolution. Charest bows out leaving his party on the brink of its demise, and without a plausible successor. That's bad news for the Conservatives as a party. But it may be very good news for conservatism as a cause -- because it means that the day of the reunification of Canada's squabbling right-of-center factions has come that much closer to dawning.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.