The Magazine

Oh Happy Day

Canada's newest party leader charms long-suffering conservatives

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By DAVID FRUM
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The party mutinied. Mulroney resigned. His successor Kim Campbell, Canada's first woman prime minister, had neither the time nor the inclination to woo the right. On Election Night 1993, the Tories suffered what may rank as the worst debacle in the history of parliamentary democracy. They emerged from the election with only 2 of 301 seats in the federal Parliament.

But the Tories weren't quite dead. Their share of the popular vote had very nearly equalled Reform's. The Tories had important institutional strengths too: access to Canada's corporate donors, still-healthy provincial parties, and a vague but widespread sense that there was something abnormal about the 1993 result, that sooner or later the Conservatives must return to power.

It could have happened. But the Conservatives succumbed to their old vice of nominating inept leaders, two of them in a row: a Quebecker named Jean Charest and then their present leader, Joe Clark, a party leader of the 1970s who briefly served as prime minister but lost power when he failed to do a head count of his supporters before a crucial budget vote. Clark is a legendary figure in Canada, a politician combining the charm of Michael Dukakis, the judgment of George McGovern, and the sure electoral instincts of Barry Goldwater. Under Charest, the Conservatives raised their seat count in the 1997 election to 20, leaving them still only the fifth largest party in Parliament. Since 1998, Clark has driven four of those 20 M.P.s to quit the party, offended the powerful Conservative premiers of Ontario and Alberta, and virtually single-handedly alienated all the party's top donors.

But Reform had troubles of its own. It had raised its seat total from 52 to 60 in 1997 -- not enough. More ominously, it actually won fewer votes than before in the all-powerful province of Ontario. Part of its problem was that it smelled too strongly of hay to appeal to urban voters. But at least as important was the unwillingness of many Ontario Conservatives to forgive Preston Manning his role in destroying the Mulroney government.

So Manning took a tremendous risk. He talked his party into sinking itself into a new "united alternative" in which old Tories would be welcome. He acceded to the retirement of the Reform name in favor of Canadian Alliance, as Reform's old emphasis on constitutional change gave way to economic issues like a 17 percent flat tax. He even put the new party's leadership up for grabs on equal terms, stepping down himself from all the advantages of incumbency. His plan succeeded -- much better than he'd ever intended.

Two candidates challenged Manning: Day and also an Ontarian named Tom Long, an important figure in the provincial Conservative party. Long's candidacy pulled almost all that remained of the Tory party structure in Canada's biggest province into the Alliance. Long finished third in the first round of balloting on June 24, and endorsed Manning. But Long couldn't deliver his followers, most of whom appear to have switched to Day.

That seemed surprising: After all, Day was routinely accused of "homophobia" and worse in the national media. But Canadians are less liberal than their leaders like to think (a National Post poll taken just before the second round vote on July 8 found that 54 percent of Canadians reacted positively to a leader who called himself a "social conservative"). Probably more important to the Ontario Tories: Day was unimplicated in the 1993 defeat. He always took care to speak respectfully of Brian Mulroney -- recently he went so far as to reveal that he had quietly met with Mulroney at the beginning of his campaign. The division of the Canadian right may have begun as an ideological struggle, but it ended as a blood feud. Now that each side has claimed its man, the feud can end.

Which is not to say that the end of the feud doesn't have ideological implications. If Mulroney was Nixon, then Day is Reagan -- same electoral coalition, but with the leadership coming from the right-hand edge of the party rather than the left. Like Reagan too, Day is the first leader of his party not to suffer from a sneaking feeling that the other side has the better of the argument.