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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sept. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sept. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Leadership review won't be Hudak's top concern at PC convention Add to ...

Asked this Saturday to pass judgment on their leader, Ontario Progressive Conservatives will likely send a signal that they’re strongly behind Tim Hudak.

But with a second vote, scheduled for the following day, they’re poised to send a different message – one that points to considerable behind-the-scenes turmoil, as the Tories pick up the pieces from their disappointing showing in last fall’s election.

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Heading into the provincial party’s convention in Niagara Falls, a polarizing figure has emerged as the frontrunner in a three-way race for its presidency. Up against more of an establishment candidate, in the form of former cabinet minister John Snobelen, Richard Ciano is giving grassroots members an opportunity to voice their displeasure with how the party has been run. And in the process, he’s pushing the Tories toward an organizational shakeup that Mr. Hudak seems inclined to resist.

Among the PC grassroots, there is a desire to hold someone accountable for blowing a lead in the polls, but also a general sense that Mr. Hudak should get a second shot (in part because there’s nobody better waiting in the wings). Mr. Ciano, who has repeatedly expressed his support for Mr. Hudak but shown disdain for the people who ran his campaign, has essentially given party members the chance to have it both ways.

In the run-up to the leadership review, the scapegoating has arguably made life easier for Mr. Hudak. But there’s a reason why, by most accounts, he would still prefer a win by Mr. Snobelen.

The attacks on Mr. Hudak’s campaign team have not just been clever messaging; they’re also personal. Mr. Ciano and his business partner, controversial campaign organizer Nick Kouvalis, have a longstanding feud with Mr. Hudak’s campaign manager, Mark Spiro. Leading up to the election, Mr. Ciano and Mr. Kouvalis were mostly shut out of the party’s operations. Now, they’re clearly looking both for a little payback and for a bigger role.

That’s a power shift that Mr. Hudak has some cause to be wary of. Mr. Ciano is certainly a hard worker, as evidenced by the way he’s outhustled Mr. Snobelen and former Canadian Taxpayers Federation director Kevin Gaudet during the presidential race. But along with Mr. Kouvalis, he has a reputation for recklessness – not least because of their company’s embarrassing efforts, on behalf of the federal Conservatives, to spread false word to voters in Montreal that Liberal MP Irwin Cotler wasn’t running again.

At the same time, despite making little effort to publicly defend the people who spent years working on his last campaign, Mr. Hudak is believed to harbour considerable loyalty. By most accounts, Mr. Hudak has not yet given up on the idea of having Mr. Spiro and others return to play senior roles on the next one.

In theory, a win by Mr. Ciano wouldn’t preclude that; it’s party leaders who call the shots, more than party presidents. But it would be a risky move for Mr. Hudak to visibly ignore the sentiments expressed by party members this weekend – especially since a good chunk of his own caucus has endorsed Mr. Ciano, and implicitly the message he’s delivered. And if Mr. Spiro and others feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus this weekend, it’s debatable whether they’d even want to return for another round, let alone work in some way alongside Mr. Ciano.

In a normal four-year election cycle, Mr. Hudak would have ample time to sort out all this backroom drama. But with a minority government, the parties will soon need to be in a constant state of election readiness. That means he doesn’t have much time to waste before making increasingly tough personnel decisions.

This weekend, much of the focus will be on the percentage Mr. Hudak gets in his leadership review. But no matter how high the number, it won’t much matter if the Tories can’t also unite behind whoever’s running his next campaign.

 
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