THE ONCE-MIGHTY Progressive Conservative party of Canada took another step toward extinction late last month. There are not many left to go.

In a move for which he had been preparing since Christmas, party leader Jean Charest stepped down. Charest is off to Quebec City to take over the leadership of the provincial Liberal party. That sounds odd, and indeed it is odd. But the Liberals are now the only party in Quebec that doesn't want to split off from the rest of Canada. And the polls show that Charest is the most popular politician in Quebec. So a marriage of convenience was brokered.

Charest leaves behind a deeply troubled party. The Conservatives are $ 10 million in debt -- an immense sum by Canadian political standards -- and have made no progress in reducing that debt in the year since the 1997 federal election. Worse, Charest's failure as a strategist has been even more dismal than his failure as a fund-raiser. He has steered the party to the left (even as the cunning federal Liberals were leaning to the right) and personally oversaw the purge of the few remaining right-of-center party activists. That course may have gratified Charest's leftish personal instincts, but it has alienated -- probably forever -- the Progressive Conservatives' old electoral base in western Canada and Ontario beyond Toronto. In the old days, the Conservative party would often tilt left opportunistically, knowing that the Right had "nowhere to go." Since the founding of the populist Reform party, however, the Canadian Right has had an alternative -- and now, thanks very largely to Charest, the alternative is bigger, richer, and more popular than the party from which it sprang.

Reform is now the official Opposition in Canada's House of Commons. The Conservatives, by contrast, elected only 20 members in 1997 -- up from the two they had elected in 1993, but still a fifth-place finish. (The Liberals came first, followed by the Reform party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois, and the socialist New Democratic party.) The Conservatives still control three provincial governments -- Manitoba, oil-rich Alberta, and all-important Ontario -- but in Alberta and Ontario the premiers preside over Conservative- Reform coalitions that owe scant loyalty to the Progressive Conservative party in Ottawa.

So desperate is the party's condition that it's not clear any credible politician will seek to succeed Charest. The best alternative -- Alberta premier Ralph Klein, a beer-loving former sportscaster who balanced his province's budget by cutting its spending by some 25 percent and now enjoys better than 70 percent approval in the polls -- announced his non-candidacy within 24 hours of Charest's stepping down. Ontario premier Mike Harris, in many ways the most successful conservative politician in North America, will not seek the job either: In Canada's decentralized federation, Ontario premier is a better job than prime minister of Canada. Manitoba's uncharismatic but solid Gary Filmon has also thus far shown little interest in the federal leadership.

That leaves the field to retreads and dark horses. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney's predecessor as Conservative leader, the legendarily incompetent Joe Clark, is rumored to be considering another run for his old job. Investment banker Hugh Segal, a former aide to Brian Mulroney, and a young MP named Peter McKay will also probably pursue it. But none of the three has much hope of being taken seriously by the voting public, and all of them express their determination to maintain the one policy of Charest's that has contributed the most to the party's present disarray: his adamant refusal to strike some sort of deal with Reform party leader Preston Manning.

For Charest and the other hard-line Conservative partisans, Manning is a traitor, who helped bring down the Conservative government of 1984-93. They damn Manning's die-hard opposition to any special constitutional status for Quebec as a form of bigotry. (Never mind that, if it is bigotry, then an overwhelming majority of English Canadians must be condemned as bigots.)

Charest's refusal to do a deal with Reform doomed the Conservatives' hopes in 1997. Charest is a great favorite of the Ottawa press corps, and in that parochial little capital, it is easy for politicians to believe their own clips. Reading the papers and listening to the television news, Charest convinced himself that he actually stood an excellent chance of sweeping the country in 1997, and that he had no reason to bargain with anybody. All he needed to do was hold fast to the ideological middle.

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.

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