Toward the end of a rambling speech to Ontario Progressive Conservatives on Saturday evening, federal Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called upon his audience to rally behind their leader.
It was almost the exact same pitch that Mr. Baird, who once served alongside Tim Hudak in the cabinet of former premier Mike Harris, made on his old friend’s behalf six weeks ago – back when word first emerged that a group of renegade Tories planned to use this past weekend’s convention to try to challenge his leadership. But this time, it didn’t really seem necessary.
By the time Mr. Baird took to the microphone, any questions about Mr. Hudak’s hold on his party had at least for now been answered. The proposed constitutional amendment to make it easier to trigger a leadership review had all but unanimously been defeated, with only a few Tories out of the many hundreds in attendance daring to vote for it. And just as importantly, with his midday address, Mr. Hudak had given delegates a rare opportunity not just to live with him, but to actually like him. It was not the speech that did Mr. Hudak favours so much as what happened at the end of it, when he abruptly switched over to a town-hall format and fielded questions from the audience – many of which were about his own struggles to win over the broader public, and all of which he handled sharply and with good humour. It was an attempt to counter criticisms that he’s too scripted and wooden, with Mr. Hudak even overcoming his usual reluctance to humanize himself with stories about his family. And although it was obvious that most of his responses had been prepared in advance, it more or less worked.
What remains to be seen is what exactly it achieved. Mr. Hudak’s objective this weekend wasn’t just to dodge a bullet; his advisers decided that his critics coming out into the open represented an opportunity to finally put an end to the sniping and undermining that he has been enduring ever since he lost his first election as leader in 2011. That explains both the show of strength in the constitutional vote and the presentation of the kinder and gentler “Tim 2.0” in his address, not to mention the showy demotion of rogue MPP Randy Hillier heading into the convention.
The test, then, is whether the critics have now been cowed into silence. And because of the nature of the dissidence, that’s no sure thing.
There is no single, united group of Tories opposed to Mr. Hudak’s leadership; no Paul Martin to his Jean Chrétien. Rather, he has essentially spent the past couple of years playing whack-a-mole as various wild cards have popped up, publicly or behind the scenes, to cause him grief.
There is Mr. Hillier, and his crowd of rural populists from eastern Ontario. There is Frank Klees, the suburban MPP with a big social-conservative following. There is Nick Kouvalis, the architect of Rob Ford’s rise to Toronto’s mayoralty, and sometimes his business partner (and PC Party president) Richard Ciano. There are at least a few federal Conservatives, unhappy with the manner in which Mr. Hudak’s former chief of staff, Lynette Corbett – who worked with them in Ottawa – was dismissed. The list goes on.
Some of these folks, such as Mr. Klees, currently appear to be entirely on board. But because they are not organized, and at times don’t seem to behave entirely rationally, it’s entirely possible that the next time Mr. Hudak stumbles, one of them will generate a fresh wave of headlines about his party turning on him.
In other words, if he wants to present an image of a party united in purpose and ready to form government, Mr. Hudak still has little room for error between now and a likely election next spring. Otherwise, this weekend will just stand as a rare highlight of his difficult time at the Tories’ helm, not the turning point for which he was aiming.