As Jean Charest prepared to lead his final Liberal caucus meeting, the jockeying to replace him was already under way.
Most of the obvious candidates played their cards close as they arrived to bid farewell to Mr. Charest on Thursday morning. Only long–time cabinet minister Jean-Marc Fournier conclusively took his name off the list.
“I have no interest in the party leadership,” said Mr. Fournier, before quickly opening the door to becoming interim leader. “When it comes to parliamentary duties, I will assume any responsibilities (the caucus) wants to give me.”
Accompanied by his wife, Michèle Dionne, Mr. Charest received an extended standing ovation from the failed candidates and returned and retiring members of the National Assembly who surrounded him.
“It was a big decision to take yesterday, but I’m very happy this morning,” said Mr. Charest.
The Liberals are expected to pick an interim leader at the next caucus meeting next Wednesday.
A leadership race is virtually unknown territory for many Quebec Liberals. The last real race was in 1983, when Robert Bourassa outpaced a young member of the legislature named Pierre Paradis and fellow rival Daniel Johnson.
Mr. Paradis, who is still a member of the National Assembly, did not rule out running again 29 years later. He will have a long hill to climb after quarrelling with Mr. Charest, being excluded from cabinet and spending extended periods in self-imposed exile from Liberal caucus meetings.
Transport Minister Pierre Moreau and Sam Hamad, the minister of Economic Development, would only pay tribute to Mr. Charest for his nine years as premier.
Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said he was consulting with his wife. One of the older members of the Charest government, he was asked if his age of 64 would be an impediment.
“My father was in great shape to age 92,” Mr. Bachand shot back. “I’m going to think about it before I answer. I’m going to talk to my wife.”
Mr. Bachand and several outgoing members of the government admitted the Liberal Party needs re-invigorating after nine years in power.
They also agreed with a slim minority Parti Québécois government coming into power, the Liberals can’t take too long to pick a new leader. Mr. Fournier, who worked briefly as an adviser to former federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, said the NDP’s lengthy leadership race showed the importance of expediting matters.
“The NDP’s recent experience shows it’s important not to completely abandon parliamentary work. We can’t afford a vacation from our responsibilities in the National Assembly,” said Mr. Fournier. “We’ll take our time to do things properly, but work must carry on.”