For Tim Hudak, it was both embarrassing and infuriating.
But the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party may come to view the bizarre drama that played out over the past few days as a blessing in disguise.
There has for some time been tension between Mr. Hudak and Frank Klees, the veteran MPP who was runner-up in their party’s most recent leadership contest. And some Tories worried that, as Mr. Hudak tried to bounce back from a disappointing result in the fall election, Mr. Klees would find ways to undermine him.
This week, Mr. Klees did just that. But he did it in such spectacularly inept fashion that he won’t be able to pose much of a threat to Mr. Hudak going forward, because it will be difficult for him to be taken seriously.
When it was revealed on Tuesday that Mr. Klees had rejected a spot in the Official Opposition’s shadow cabinet and would instead defy his leader’s wishes by running for Speaker of the Legislature, it briefly seemed a devastating power play. If elected to that position, Mr. Klees would have changed the balance of power by bringing the number of opposition MPPs down to 53 – the same number held by the governing Liberals.
Mr. Hudak, certainly, looked deeply unnerved when he was forced to announce this turn of events. But that was before he realized, along with everyone else, that Mr. Klees really hadn’t thought his gambit through.
With the third-place NDP having no interest in voting for him, and only one or two of his fellow Tories willing to do so, Mr. Klees would have needed the support of pretty much the entire Liberal caucus. But he couldn’t get that, because four Liberals were already running for Speaker. And they had only to vote for themselves and he wouldn’t have the numbers.
It also quickly became apparent that Mr. Klees had some peculiar notions about the job he was seeking, which he seemed to think would make him a sort of all-powerful independent MPP. When forced to settle tied votes, he repeatedly suggested, he would not be bound by the precedent of the Speaker siding with the government on matters of confidence. Instead, he would vote according to his own principles – an assertion that precluded almost any Liberals supporting him.
By the time he announced on Friday afternoon that he had given up on this particular ambition, Mr. Klees was being mocked by all three provincial parties.
To his credit, Mr. Hudak opted to be the bigger man rather than leave Mr. Klees twisting in the wind. Several days’ negotiation led to a moderately face-saving return to the Tories’ fold, with Mr. Klees back as their transportation and infrastructure critic.
But he will undoubtedly get a frosty welcome at the Tories’ next caucus meeting, not least because he managed to upstage the unveiling of the shadow cabinet – something that would have been a big moment for rookie MPPs in particular.
Meanwhile, media have been reminded that Mr. Klees is the same politician who once planned to run for the leadership of the federal Canadian Alliance, only to announce at his planned campaign launch that he wasn’t running after all. His reputation for impetuousness reinforced, his future machinations will be viewed with considerable skepticism.
All things being equal, Mr. Hudak would undoubtedly have preferred to present a united front all along, rather than enduring several days’ coverage of internal conflict. But it was the sort of challenge that opposition leaders must endure after election losses. And rarely are they blessed with challengers who manage to launch pre-emptive strikes against themselves.