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frances bula

In February 2011, during a televised debate for the B.C. Liberal leadership, candidate Kevin Falcon challenged rival front-runner Christy Clark about her refusal to commit to running for the B.C. Liberals in an election if she wasn't chosen as the party leader.

But Ms. Clark went on to narrowly defeat Mr. Falcon. The B.C. Liberal Party has steadily declined since Ms. Clark was elected leader, with little hope of any rebound. And now it's Mr. Falcon, the party's second-most powerful figure, a cabinet minister described by many as a mini-Gordon Campbell, who won't run in the next election.

This is sure to send the party into a tailspin, far more than when MLA John van Dongen quit. Mr. van Dongen had always been seen as ready to bolt at any moment, with minimal loyalty to Ms. Clark or the Liberal party. But Mr. Falcon's decision to step down, even though it isn't accompanied by any stated support for the B.C. Conservative Party, is likely to be seen as the nail in the coffin when it comes to holding federal Conservatives and Liberals together in the coalition that's always been necessary to defeat the NDP in British Columbia.

Mr. Falcon was strongly supported by the party's conservative wing during the leadership race, which believed he was best positioned to maintain the B.C. Liberals' "free enterprise" coalition between federal Conservatives and Liberals. Falcon supporters, such as businessman Ryan Beedie, argued that Mr. Falcon had enough credibility among the party's conservative grass roots to prevent the then-anemic B.C. Conservative Party from challenging from the right.

In the end, the provincial Conservative party under John Cummins did surge in the polls, drawing support from former B.C. Liberal voters.

Mr. Falcon has long mused about the toll politics takes on family life. He has a young child. But it's unlikely he would have quit had his party's prospects not seemed so dismal. His departure is the most striking example of how the party's top officials have become resigned to landslide NDP victory next May.

Mr. Falcon has rarely walked away from a challenge, or controversy, in the past.

Mr. Falcon, who grew up in a large, athletic and Catholic West Vancouver family, became active in right-wing politics as a teenager. His heroes were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Bennett, who withstood massive union protests to carry out a restraint program in 1983. That's when Mr. Falcon started actively working with the Social Credit party.

When that party was wiped out in 1991, he didn't immediately gravitate to the B.C. Liberals but was more inclined to the Reform Party. But Mr. Falcon, then working in real estate, he was drawn slowly into the Liberal orbit as he organized a Total Recall campaign to try to get every NDP MLA ousted after Glen Clark was elected premier in 1996.

He was first elected in a 1999 byelection and went on to become one of Gordon Campbell's favoured stalwarts.

The two were seen as much alike in both looks and temperament, both of them tending to the autocratic, protesters-be-damned style in politics, neither of them warm, fuzzy or populist. Although Mr. Falcon was given strong cabinet positions and was encouraged to take the lead at cabinet meetings, he was careful not to express any ambition to be premier was Mr. Campbell still had a firm handle on the office.

But when the leadership came open 18 months ago, he nipped quickly past Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and then-Housing Minister Rich Coleman to nail down the support of the province's powerful Conservatives to back his bid.

Where he will lead those supporters now is anyone's guess.