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To the B.C. Liberal party’s top brass, Rich Coleman and Premier Christy Clark make up the twin pillars of the party.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Liberal Party has held back on just two nomination meetings for those MLAs who intend to stand for office again: Premier Christy Clark and her minister of many things, Rich Coleman.

It is a routine tactic to conduct the party leader's nomination meeting as a kick-off to the campaign. Giving Mr. Coleman equal ranking is a mark of great status. To the party's top brass, he and the Premier make up the twin pillars of the party.

He is deputy premier and the Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas. He leads the Premier's pet project, the creation of a liquefied natural gas industry, and is also the minister responsible for housing, gambling and liquor policy. He is chair of the party's election campaign and maintains a legendary fundraising apparatus. And he is widely acknowledged within Liberal circles as the heir apparent should the party's re-election strategy fail, at least as an interim leader.

A Coleman nomination meeting could easily attract a crowd of 1,000 or more – an energetic launch the Liberals need as they try to demonstrate momentum heading into the campaign in April.

But there is another side to Mr. Coleman. Behind closed doors, he has a reputation as a bully. And as some Liberals grapple with the possibility of losing the next election, they are less afraid to take him on.

The first evidence of that shift came to light last November, when a group of backbenchers challenged him over liquor-policy changes that favoured a single brewery that happened to be a generous contributor to Mr. Coleman's campaign fund. Such disagreements are normally handled outside the public eye, but this one spilled outside the caucus room.

More recently, Mr. Coleman's intervention in Surrey's Gateway casino proposal earned him a public reprimand from the Liberal caucus chair. In the process, his quiet threats to city councillors – that they would never have another shot at building a casino if this one wasn't approved – were exposed.

The casino scrap was quickly followed with another shot, this one over Mr. Coleman's smart-meter project. A Liberal MLA's letter to a constituent, widely shared, quoted Mr. Coleman on a policy about-face and created yet more controversy.

Until now, Mr. Coleman's influence in the party insulated him from these kinds of challenges. When he agreed to seek re-election – after the leave-taking of both George Abbott and Kevin Falcon – Ms. Clark needed him more than ever. His foundations in the party run deep, and his conservative credentials help shore up a coalition that has been under stress.

Mr. Coleman says the disagreements of recent months are insignificant – just a misunderstanding here and there.

"I wouldn't even call them skirmishes," he said in an interview this week.

He said it is only natural that his assignments would ruffle feathers. "If you don't do things in life, you'll never be criticized. And you'll never get anything done," he said. But he added: "I'm way more of a conciliator than you guys give me credit for. I have a great relationship with the members of my caucus."

'People are unsettled'

One of the most outspoken members of that caucus is Randy Hawes, the MLA from Abbotsford-Mission. In November, Mr. Hawes blew the whistle on the brewery changes that gave what he termed an "outrageous subsidy" to Pacific Western Breweries.

Mr. Hawes is not running again – in large measure, he said this week, because he doesn't like the direction of the party leadership. The twin pillars figure prominently here.

"To be blunt about it, many of us are completely excluded from key decisions that I think have hurt us badly and much of our leadership is completely out of step with voters at the doorstep level," he said.

The brewery battle was just one example of the problem, he said. "I think I was right … I don't feel today's B.C. Liberal party is in line with the principles I have always felt I need to abide by."

Mostly, the concerns about the direction of the party are being discussed quietly. A core group of Liberal activists is looking ahead to the day after the election, and considering what happens if the party is no longer in government.

What is taking place with Mr. Coleman is in part a testing of strength, some of those Liberals say. If the party loses government, there is likely to be a demand for renewal. Who will chart that new direction? The influential Mr. Coleman, or some other faction within the party?

"People are unsettled, and they are thinking about their own futures and the future of the party," said a senior Liberal, one of many who spoke on condition of anonymity about the party's future, and Mr. Coleman's role in it.

"As the edges start to fray and we start to think about a new regime, people realize he doesn't have the protection that he used to have of his own personal power."

For those Liberals who dare to consider a future in opposition, there is still an acknowledgment that Mr. Coleman will remain a prominent figure in the Liberal party. His seat in Fort Langley-Aldergrove, which he has won four times before, is one of the party's safest. Even if the party meets with a massive upset, he is likely to be sitting in the legislature after the votes are counted.

And, victory is not out of the question. The Liberals have inched toward closing the gap. If Ms. Clark and her team win, Mr. Coleman will be able to take much of the credit for the revival of their fortunes, and may be more powerful than ever.

For his part, Mr. Coleman is bullish about the Liberals capturing a fourth term despite the considerable lead held by the opposition New Democratic Party. Naturally, he would not discuss what his role might be should the Liberals fail.

He did note, however, that he chose not to seek the leadership in 2011, when the party replaced premier Gordon Campbell. He suggested he hasn't developed any new ambitions. "I did not run for the leader when I could have. You can read between the lines. I don't plan that way."

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