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Canada Can Ford avoid inserting himself into the federal election campaign?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is seen during a meeting of Canada's Premiers in Saskatoon, Sask., on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Mr. Ford proclaimed that a 'powerhouse team' of premiers would fight American trade protectionism because the Prime Minister has failed to do so.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Doug Ford couldn’t help himself from taking shots at Justin Trudeau this week.

First, while in Calgary, the Ontario Premier accused the Prime Minister of not co-operating with the provinces, slammed federal carbon pricing policy, and punctuated it with a “God help us if Trudeau is re-elected.”

Later, in Saskatoon, Mr. Ford proclaimed that a “powerhouse team” of premiers would fight American trade protectionism because the Prime Minister has failed to do so. In between, he got into a war of words with Mr. Trudeau’s government about who is to blame for layoffs at a Bombardier plant.

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Possibly much of this was to be expected, in a week Mr. Ford was out West meeting with fellow premiers, with federal-provincial disputes front and centre. And he got drawn into the Bombardier blame game after federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu fired first, by blaming his government’s management of transit projects for the job losses.

But as Mr. Ford settles back into his home province, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives will be hoping that – improbable though it may be – this was about the last time Mr. Ford will insert himself into the coming national election campaign.

Of all the variables that keep federal Tories up at night heading into October’s election, the Ford factor is near the top of the list.

Courtesy of unpopular spending cuts and a remarkable string of ethics controversies for a premier scarcely a year into office, Mr. Ford is brutally unpopular in Ontario. That seemingly helps to explain why polls have shown the federal Conservatives failing to gain momentum this year in the largest province, when they need to pick up lots of seats to form a government.

The good news, for Mr. Scheer, is that Mr. Ford seems to recognize some need to keep his head down this fall. That was a common takeaway from his decision to have Ontario’s Legislature recess until after the federal vote. And for all his usual bravado, the word in provincial circles is that he has recently suffered some awakenings to his unpopularity. (He is said, for instance, to have been wounded by the viscerally negative crowd reaction when he was introduced at the Toronto Raptors’ championship celebration.)

But even if Mr. Ford intends to lie relatively low during the federal race, there are several reasons that may be difficult for him.

One is that his government has already shown an ability to make major news when it doesn’t intend to do so – from program cuts buried in its budget, to patronage appointments by Mr. Ford’s erstwhile chief of staff belatedly coming to light. Possibly there will be a break in such revelations if the provincial capital is mostly dark through summer. But the record to date suggests that at least the odd time bomb will go off before October.

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A second is that, whatever Mr. Ford’s intention is now, he is known for being impulsive and having difficulty sticking to a strategy, let alone one requiring him to avoid a spotlight to which he is naturally drawn. And he will be especially tempted to jump in because of what seems to be genuine personal dislike for Mr. Trudeau.

And a third, relatedly, is that the federal Liberals will keep baiting him, as Ms. Hajdu did this week. Their campaign strategy, in Ontario at least, involves campaigning as much against Mr. Ford as Mr. Scheer, because the Premier is potentially more galvanizing for their base, and because they believe some voters will see the benefit in having a counterbalance to him in Ottawa. From their perspective, the less he is able to turn the other cheek, the better.

In other words, the Liberals probably liked how this week played out. And while Mr. Scheer’s Tories could probably live with it, under the circumstances of the premiers’ confab, they may not be as subtle as they once were in encouraging Mr. Ford to keep his distance from this point.

Shortly after Mr. Ford won power, there was some concern that he had designs on the federal Conservative leadership, which made Mr. Scheer’s crowd wary of offending him lest they offer incentive to make trouble. Now, that’s less of a worry than trying to avoid carrying his quickly accumulated baggage.

Not that Mr. Ford has necessarily given up entirely on ambitions beyond his current job, even now. But any time in the spotlight during the next three months is liable to be more hindrance, than help, to his party and to how he is seen within it.

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