Even in that peer group, Mr. Balsillie remembers Mr. Wright as special: “He was clean-cut, well-dressed and very composed. … I remember thinking, ‘I have to seriously up my inspiration levels if I am going to keep up with this kid.’ ”
Classmate John Duffy, now a political rival as a Liberal Party strategist, agrees: “Back in the day, the question was: ‘Will Nigel be on the Supreme Court or be prime minister?’ He worked harder than anybody and he was pretty much the smartest guy in the room.”
Mr. Gladwell recalls him as “an exceedingly decent, sweet and good-natured person,” who appeared more mature and directed than his peers. “He just seemed like he had a much clearer sense of who he was than the rest of us.”
And clearly he was a conservative, at a time when the political pendulum was swinging in that direction. A year earlier, Margaret Thatcher had settled into 10 Downing Street, and Republican Ronald Reagan was soon to occupy the White House. In Canada, Joe Clark had (briefly) interrupted 16 years of Liberal rule, and the Brian Mulroney era was on the horizon.
“The neo-conservative revival was hitting Canadian campuses – University of Toronto, in particular – and he was in the thick of it,” Mr. Duffy says.
Mr. Gladwell recalls that, “at the time, it felt very subversive to be a right-winger.”
What proved to be a flirtation for Mr. Gladwell was anything but for “Nige,” who had embraced the Young Progressive Conservatives back in Burlington, and arrived at Trinity with big plans.
His career goal was the law, Mr. Balsillie says, but as well he “wanted to be involved, massively, in the conservative political apparatus, both federally and provincially.”
And so, being a champion of free enterprise and no fan of Red Tory centrists, Mr. Wright rallied youth votes against Mr. Clark when the party held its 1981 federal leadership review.
Two years later, with the leadership formally up for grabs, he struck again, joining fellow Campus Conservative Tom Long to corral student delegates and help to crown Mr. Mulroney, says Peter White, later principal secretary in the Mulroney PMO.
Closer to home, Mr. Wright spread the gospel by starting the University of Toronto Magazine in 1984 with Tony Clement, a friend and classmate now head of the federal Treasury Board in the Harper cabinet.
Mr. Wright, the editor, quickly emerged a Thatcher diehard, echoing the Iron Lady’s contrarian view that foreign investment could somehow be a “liberalizing force” in apartheid-era South Africa and accusing her trade-union nemesis, miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, of “shameless bullying.”
And Mr. Wright remains within the Trinity College orbit. The $4-million home he bought in 2007 sits among fraternity houses in the Annex, the upscale neighbourhood that is just off campus. A few blocks south is Saint Thomas’s, the 139-year-old Anglican church he has attended since his student days. The Ottawa job was supposed to be a sabbatical.
After the 1983 federal leadership vote, Mr. Wright entered law school at the U of T, only to take a hiatus the following year – Mr. Mulroney had swept the Liberals from power and there was a job available working with Mr. White in the PMO.
Although young, Mr. Wright was never afraid to challenge prevailing views, Mr. White recalls, but “he was also a very good soldier and, once a decision was made, he’d step into line.”
And he was diligent. “He’s a workaholic,” Mr. White adds.
Returning to school in 1986, Mr. Wright flirted with a career in academics, prompting Robert Prichard, then the U of T’s law dean, to recommend further study. So after graduating in 1988, he went on to a master’s degree at Harvard.
But early in 1990, after Mr. Mulroney had proposed the Meech Lake accord to bring Quebec into the Constitution, he appeared with two fellow Canadians on The Globe’s comment page, extolling the accord’s virtues and accusing critics of “soulless universalism and insular parochialism.”
Called to the bar the same year, Mr. Wright came back to Toronto, but abandoned the ivory tower in favour of a job where he had articled as a student. Known today as Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, “it was like a New York law firm in Toronto – crushing demands on time but, at the other end, lucrative,” a former classmate recalls.