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Former B.C. Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources minister Blair Lekstrom is seen in this January 17, 2009 file photo in Victoria. Lekstrom has resigned from the Liberal cabinet and caucus, effective immediately, Friday June 11, 2010. (Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)
Former B.C. Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources minister Blair Lekstrom is seen in this January 17, 2009 file photo in Victoria. Lekstrom has resigned from the Liberal cabinet and caucus, effective immediately, Friday June 11, 2010. (Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)

Gary Mason

With Lekstrom out, B.C. Premier Campbell could be next Add to ...

As long as Blair Lekstrom was associated with a government that was bringing in one of the most reviled taxes in B.C. history, he was dead politician walking in his riding of Peace River South.

Now, it increasingly appears it will be the political career of Premier Gordon Campbell that will be finished as a result of the Harmonized Sales Tax that goes into effect July 1.

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Mr. Lekstrom's abrupt resignation from cabinet and the Liberal caucus over the government's insistence in bringing in the tax is the type of blow that knocks the wind out of a governing party - if only temporarily. And there is no other way to interpret the move other than a direct challenge to Mr. Campbell's leadership.

The Premier is savvy enough to understand this. The question is, will others around Mr. Campbell's cabinet table follow Mr. Lekstrom's lead? Perhaps if they care about their re-election chances they will.

For his part, Mr. Lekstrom understood perfectly well that his life as an MLA was kaput if he didn't take the radical step that he did. There may not be an area of the province that resents taxes more than Peace River South, which abuts the B.C.-Alberta boundary. It is one of the reasons the riding has always been allergic to the New Democratic Party, which has a reputation for loving taxes .

But the HST ignited a fury in the riding the likes of which hasn't been seen in some time. Well, at least since the Liberals broke a campaign promise in 2002 not to sell BC Rail. People were pretty upset about that, too. But according to Alvin Stedel, a local businessman in Dawson Creek, the rage over the HST is without precedent.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen people this mad," he said.

Mr. Stedel once sat on council when Mr. Lekstrom was mayor of Dawson Creek. Mr. Stedel says he always voted for the free-enterprise option in provincial elections, whether it was the Social Credit party, Reform or the Liberals. But he was upset enough about the HST that he led the local petition to have the tax repealed. He managed to get 4,865 signatures, which was 351 more than the number of votes Mr. Lekstrom received in the past election.

"I think Blair has done the honourable thing," Mr. Stedel said Friday from Dawson Creek. "Now Peace River South has its representative back. This is democracy in action.

"Blair has probably just ensured that he's re-elected by huge numbers next time around. Otherwise, he was in trouble."

And Mr. Lekstrom knew that.

This is not the first time the former minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources has broke ranks with his party. When the Liberals ripped up Health Employees Union contracts earlier in the decade, Mr. Lekstrom spoke out against the decision. Most figured that was the end of his cabinet ambitions.

It wasn't.

But the HST is a different fish, and Mr. Lekstrom understood this. Maybe he knew, too, that if he was ever going to seek the leadership of his party - as some suspect he wants to - dissociating himself from the hated tax was the politically astute thing to do.

Maybe he also calculated he had nothing to lose at this point. Politically, the HST is taking his party over a cliff. Recent polls show the Liberals in freefall. Mr. Campbell is more unpopular than at any point in his leadership - which is saying something.

There is a growing chorus of murmurs in the party ranks about "the problem at the top." As well, there are supporters around a small group of potential leadership candidates, mostly current cabinet ministers, who have been phoning around gauging support. Expect that activity to heat up now.

The B.C. Liberal party, and especially its caucus, has been characterized for many years now by a fierce loyalty to the leader. If Mr. Campbell hasn't ruled with an iron fist, it has at least been with a steely glare and an unflinching ability to make examples out of those whose allegiance became questionable at any time.

Mr. Lekstrom's decision to quit the caucus represents a huge crack in the wall of solidarity that has always surrounded the party. Suddenly it doesn't look so invincible and unassailable any more.

Just like Mr. Campbell's leadership.

 

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