Randy Hillier has a way of complicating Tim Hudak's plans.
Around this time last year, the member of provincial parliament for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington joined his colleague Bill Murdoch in refusing to leave the Ontario Legislature, both men making a noisy spectacle of themselves in protest of the new harmonized sales tax. It was a stunt orchestrated by Mr. Hudak, the new Opposition Leader, seeking to energize his Progressive Conservatives. But Mr. Hillier was never supposed to be part of it; when he joined in, party brass were as surprised as anyone else.
As it turned out, that bit of insubordination proved fairly harmless. But as they choose their candidates for next year's provincial election, the Tories' inability to control Mr. Hillier is starting to look like a much bigger problem for them.
Although he cultivates an image as an enlightened bumpkin - a guy who enjoys quoting John Locke and shooting deer in equal measure - Mr. Hillier has proven himself a shrewd political operator. And as the most visible face of the Ontario Landowners Association, a hard-line libertarian organization of which he was formerly president, he appears to be at the forefront of a Progressive Conservative civil war breaking out in the eastern part of the province.
The battleground, for now, is Carleton-Mississippi Mills, an Ottawa-area riding where veteran MPP Norm Sterling is being challenged for the PC nomination by a close ally of Mr. Hillier, fellow former OLA president Jack MacLaren. Tensions began to boil over this week at the local Conservatives' annual general meeting, and although Mr. Sterling's riding association executive prevailed, the incumbent evidently wasn't all that reassured.
"He should either be a member of the team," Mr. Sterling reportedly said of Mr. Hillier the day after the vote, "or he should step outside the team and run as an Ontario Landowner under his own party label."
That latter option, however, is exactly what the party has sought to avoid - which is how it got itself into this situation in the first place.
The previous Conservative leader, John Tory, felt compelled to live with Mr. Hillier as his candidate in the 2007 election, and to afford him some policy concessions, for fear that he'd otherwise start a party that would split the right-of-centre vote. But the two men were a terrible fit, and Mr. Hillier did little to hide it.
His relationship with Mr. Hudak has been less fraught. Mr. Hillier played kingmaker in last year's leadership contest, after Mr. Hudak endeared himself by pledging to scrap the province's Human Rights Tribunal. And Mr. Hudak is generally better than his predecessor at keeping his caucus members happy and engaged.
But it's becoming evident that no pragmatic leader will succeed in appeasing someone with very little appetite for any ideological compromise. Mr. Hillier is a fun guy to have a debate with, but the caucus table of a relatively moderate party isn't somewhere he's going to win often enough for his liking.
So as Mr. Hillier and his supporters flex their muscles in ridings around Eastern Ontario, the question looms: Just how long can the Tories keep Mr. Hillier inside the tent, and at what cost?
He's not going anywhere before the next election. But to avoid winding up with several versions of him in caucus, the party may have to throw him a few more policy bones - beyond the Human Rights Tribunal - in their platform. And even then, recent history shows that it's in his nature to soon press for more.
All this is clearly frustrating for Mr. Hudak's strategists. More than many campaign teams, they're religious about mapping out every day leading into next fall's campaign. It's fair to say that stories drawing comparisons to the Tea Party aren't part of the plan.
But then, as Mr. Hudak found out in his early days as leader, Mr. Hillier really isn't one for sticking to the script.