The B.C. Conservative Party is in full disintegration mode. Some are no doubt wondering what took it so long.
The Conservatives have always seemed like a party that was a few slices short of a loaf. For years it hung around the fringes of the B.C. political scene, switching mostly unknown leaders between elections while fighting a reputation for attracting oddballs and religious zealots. To the extent that it existed at all, it existed mostly in name only.
But then along came the HST and Gordon Campbell’s unceremonious exit from politics as a result of it. When Christy Clark ascended to the Liberal throne, the B.C. Conservatives suddenly had a reason to live.
Those who occupied the right flank of the Liberal coalition were deeply suspicious of Ms. Clark’s well-documented connections with the federal Grits. Conversely, they had always viewed Mr. Campbell as one of them, someone whose conservative sensibilities would carry the day in any showdown with Big-L liberals in his party and caucus.
When former Reform and Tory MP John Cummins was talked into taking over the leadership of the provincial Conservatives, the party all of a sudden had much-needed exposure and momentum.
Soon enough, there were polls showing the Conservatives virtually tied with the foundering Liberals. And not long after that, Liberal John van Dongen crossed the floor of the legislature to give the Conservatives their first MLA.
It all seemed almost too good to be true. As it turns out, it was.
For the past couple of months, the 70-year-old Mr. Cummins has been facing a full-on internal revolt. Even after recently putting his leadership to a party vote – one in which he won by a healthy plus-70-per-cent margin – his problems have not gone away. In some ways, they’ve only gotten worse.
Mr. van Dongen has quit and other party officials have left and joined the Liberals. Every couple of days, it seems, more internal memos are leaked to bloggers and news organizations detailing the level of unhappiness in the party.
Now, there are reports that a raft of party presidents want Mr. Cummins gone and donors are putting away their cheque books until the current mess is sorted out.
When I spoke to Mr. Cummins last month, he seemed genuinely bewildered by the efforts to oust him. He seemed particularly upset with Mr. van Dongen, who many believe has been the not-so-invisible hand behind much of the anti-Cummins activity going on behind the scenes.
At the time, the leader tried to play down the seriousness of the rebellion.
“You have a few guys who were upset and they got a little traction and they made a little noise but at the end of the day it amounted to very little,” he said. “They couldn’t get themselves elected to the board. They couldn’t even get 10 per cent of the vote. What does that tell you?”
It tells me the leader did not have a complete grasp of the depths of his problem.
Clearly, the Conservatives are in complete turmoil. Mr. Cummins can attempt to minimize the problem if he wants, but plugging his ears and wishing his troubles away won’t help. Last month’s leadership vote clearly did not address internal issues. At this point, Mr. Cummins would seem to have little choice but to either resign or announce that he is willing to face a challenge from other candidates.
A leadership race could help give the party the kind of provincewide media exposure it could never hope to buy with its pitiable coffers. And that’s not an insignificant factor in an advance of an election.
If Mr. Cummins loses to someone deemed to be more politically salable, then he will have gone out the honourable way and he could say he put the party on the kind of footing it needed to establish itself as a viable alternative to the Liberals.
One thing Mr. Cummins can’t afford to do is to continue to preside over a clearly broken political institution. With each passing day, the Conservatives risk being viewed once again as a party of wingnuts and eccentrics that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Recent polls have already showed them losing a good chunk of their hard-earned support.
The Conservatives are now at a critical juncture. Their fate will be determined based on which way Mr. Cummins decides to lead them.