Former premier Christy Clark is resigning as Leader of the BC Liberals, setting the stage for a remake of a centre-right party that had governed the province for 16 years.
Ms. Clark announced her resignation Friday, almost a month to the day after she and her party were defeated in a confidence vote. Ms. Clark led the party into a spring election – her second as premier – that reduced the party to a minority and revealed a widening urban-rural divide that her successor must overcome.
Her decision to give up her seat also provides a period of added stability within the province's minority legislature, where the NDP is governing with the support of the Green Party, and appears to put off the prospect of a snap election.
Ms. Clark told her caucus colleagues that her departure would be effective as of Aug. 4. Rich Coleman, who served in various cabinet posts under two premiers, will take over as interim leader.
The Liberals finished the May election with one seat short of a majority and were defeated in the legislature late last month. The Lieutenant-Governor then asked the NDP to form the government and Premier John Horgan was sworn in earlier this month.
On Friday, Ms. Clark, who was first elected to the legislature in 1996, told her caucus meeting in the Okanagan city of Penticton that she was leaving – a decision that came as a surprise given expectations that Ms. Clark would lead the Liberals in opposition, at least in the short term.
"Serving as Premier and serving the people of British Columbia for the past 6 1/2 years has been an incredible honour and privilege," Ms. Clark said in a statement, which did not provide details on why she decided to go now. She is not expected to face the media until early next week.
Stockwell Day, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister who has campaigned for the Liberals – a coalition of federal Tories and federal Liberals – said the party must move quickly to elect a leader given the precarious state of B.C. politics with the NDP governing with the support of three Green MLAs. There are 43 Liberals seats in the 87-seat legislature compared to 41 New Democrats.
"They need to get on it with [a leadership race], but not undue haste," Mr. Day said.
The executive for the BC Liberal party is to meet within 28 days to set the rules for a leadership election process, the party said in a statement. When Gordon Campbell announced his departure as premier in 2010, it took the Liberals about four months to pick his successor – Ms. Clark.
As defeat in the legislature became a near certainty, Ms. Clark tabled a Throne Speech that offered a wholesale remake of the party's election campaign, reversing course on several major policy planks and adopting a list of ideas from the New Democrats and Greens. The next leader will need to set a course for the party that will either embrace elements of that last-minute policy rewrite, which could pull the party to the left, or cast them aside.
At the same time, the Liberals also face a threat from the provincial Conservatives – no link to their federal namesake – who have no seats in the legislature. Many Liberals fear even limited voter support for the B.C. Conservatives could lead to vote splits that could cost the Liberals seats.
"I think that's always a risk, especially now that Christy Clark has stepped down," Mr. Day said. "We don't need another fracture from within the non-socialist forces."
Former energy minister Bill Bennett, who did not seek re-election this spring, said on Friday that the BC Liberal coalition is at a critical point in its history given results from an election in which the party thought a buoyant economy would ensure votes.
"We clearly missed something. It was probably staring us in the face and as a party, we need to come to grips with what it was that we missed and try to get back in touch with the people who did not vote for us last time, and that's going to take some considerable intelligence and political acumen and leadership abilities," Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Bennett said he thought Ms. Clark could have engineered a political comeback. Now he said her successor will have to figure out how to speak to rural B.C., where many Liberals were elected, and to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, strongholds for the NDP and the Green Party.
Mike de Jong, the former finance minister, said he knew that Ms. Clark had been considering her future for some time. "It's a decision rooted in the belief that this is the right time," Mr. de Jong said from Penticton. "This is very much her decision and something she has been thinking about certainly, if not since the election, since the transition in government."
John Horgan, who was sworn in as NDP premier earlier this month, issued a statement to thank Ms. Clark for her service to the province.
"While we represented two different parties, we are united in our belief that, working together, we can build a better future for British Columbia," he said. "As an MLA and a Premier, Ms. Clark fought passionately for what she believed in. I know she will take that passion and energy to her next opportunity."