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How Christy Clark can avoid becoming a placeholder premier

It's a horrifying prospect for any premier, but increasingly real for Christy Clark.

She risks being a political footnote unless she can deal with the re-energized BC Conservatives, who threaten to erode the centre-right coalition that is the BC Liberal Party. Vote splitting could clear the way for an NDP government, which would render Ms. Clark the placeholder premier between Gordon Campbell and Adrian Dix – a trivia question for future political junkies.

Ms. Clark has tried various tactics – with, polls suggest, little effect. Nothing is working. Not attack ads. Not Ms. Clark's occasional musings on her political dilemma. Not the advocacy of federal Tory stalwarts Jay Hill, Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl on the perils of support for John Cummins and his provincial Conservatives splitting the centre-right vote.

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Last year, The Globe's Friday political page explored tactics the Conservatives might use to gain traction on the BC Liberals. Now, the reverse: advice for the BC Liberals on dealing with the BC Conservatives.

BETTER ADS: Marketing professor Lindsey Meredith dismisses Liberal attack ads on Mr. Cummins as D-grade stuff, although he likes the shifty-eyed image of Mr. Cummins in one of them as attack imaging at its most effective. The rest is too broad, he says. To date, the Liberals say Mr. Cummins is unprincipled for opposing a minimum-wage increase while collecting a $100,000-a-year taxpayer-funded pension. Also, Liberals note, he voted NDP in the last provincial election because he couldn't bring himself to vote Liberal.

Prof. Meredith says the ads also fail to ding the ideological bells of the older, conservative voters the Liberals need. "This is all about trying to get the right-wing vote back in the closet," said the Simon Fraser University academic. Marketing professor Darren Dahl at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia notes that few voters actually know who Mr. Cummins is, so have no way to judge the allegations in the ads. To that end, Prof. Meredith says Liberals should wait and pounce if Mr. Cummins makes a verbal gaffe involving issues, such as health care, that are of importance to older, motivated voters.

STRATEGIC DEFEAT: By-elections loom in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope. NDP prospects in Port Moody-Coquitlam look good because the candidate is former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini. But political scientist Hamish Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley says a Liberal defeat by the NDP in Chilliwack-Hope might actually help Ms. Clark. "It would give a lot of credibility to the argument the BC Conservatives are splitting the vote," he said.

PAGING STEPHEN HARPER: The Prime Minister is generally averse to getting involved in provincial politics. But what if, at some strategic point, he could be discreetly persuaded to suggest in a by-the-way manner that he supports the Liberals as the centre-right government his own Tories can work with? Former senior members of his cabinet such as Mr. Day have made the point, but it might have more weight with right-wing voters in B.C. coming from their former boss.

ALLIANCE: It sounds like a Hail Mary pass, but Ms. Clark may have to consider striking some kind of deal with Mr. Cummins and his Conservatives, each side swallowing its contempt in the interest of centre-right government in B.C. It seems a long shot given the rhetorical fire between the two sides. But historian David Mitchell, a former Liberal MLA, notes that a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives successfully governed B.C. from 1941 until 1952. "It didn't happen magically," he said. "It didn't happen without a lot of thought and pain."

Mr. Mitchell says it would come down to Ms. Clark, Mr. Cummins and the people around them. "It requires a maturity and level of leadership to say this is not about ego or getting a competitive leg up on another party," he said. And if Mr. Cummins – who has been publicly wary of co-operation with the Liberals – says no? "I wouldn't take no for an answer," Mr. Mitchell said. Gordon Wilson, former leader of the BC Liberals, suggests the party find an eminent person to secretly broker an accommodation between the two sides. He says Ms. Clark – previously associated with the federal Liberals – has already shown a willingness to compromise ideologically by populating her inner circle with former associates of the Prime Minister.

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A coalition that worked

Between 1941 and 1952, British Columbia was governed by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals, which was remarkable given the enmity between the partners.

But the two parties found common cause in their concerns about keeping the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – forerunners to the NDP – out of power.

The Liberals were the senior party in the union, and John Hart was the first premier under the arrangement, which would eventually see the two parties decline to run against each other in ridings they held.

"It was a very solid, very stable, very businesslike government," said historian David Mitchell, who notes the Conservatives eventually came to hold the finance portfolio as part of the deal. "A lot of people thought it was one of the best governments in the history of the province."

The coalition won the 1945 election and was re-elected in 1949, but dissolved in 1952. Both parties were swept away by the CCF and Social Credit Party, the latter beginning a four-decade run as a major force in B.C. politics.

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Ian Bailey

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