Conservative Leader John Cummins is the third political leader in B.C. to face a clear leadership revolt in the past two years. He is handling it about as well as Carole James of the NDP did – which is to say, not very well.
Two years ago, Ms. James faced a shadowy opposition within her caucus – 13 MLAs told her, privately, that they didn't support her. Fearing they might go public, the B.C. New Democratic Party leader called them out. She denounced her still-nameless critics and said she would tolerate no more dissent. To assert her leadership, she called for a vote by her party's governing body.
To make sure the tactic didn't backfire, her strategists needed a strong display of support. As the NDP MLAs and other party officials arrived for the vote at a waterfront hotel on a blustery November day, they were handed yellow scarves. Thirteen MLAs in her caucus refused to don the pro-James emblems. Into the spotlight, grudgingly, stepped the so-called Bakers Dozen.
Ms. James won the vote and declared the party's infighting over. But those scarves proved to be a miscalculation. Now out in the open, the battle intensified and Ms. James resigned a few weeks later rather than risk further damage to her party.
Last weekend, Mr. Cummins issued an ultimatum to his party's dissidents to shut up or be expelled. In doing so, he transformed an amorphous opposition into a visible entity. He might as well have handed out scarves.
Mr. Cummins escalated the conflict but then didn't follow through: While private negotiations between the two sides carried on, the deadline for his ultimatum passed. He later explained that he has no power to turf party members, leaving the decision to his party board members on Thursday night.
But the theatrics ensured that when the dissidents – claiming to represent more than a third of the party's riding association presidents – called a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, the rented hotel room was packed with reporters and half a dozen television cameras.
The anti-Cummins faction has not established itself as a viable threat, but this week's events will take a toll on the party's fortunes.
Gordon Campbell knew that danger existed. Two years ago, he too faced a small but disgruntled group of opponents to his leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party. Like Ms. James, he faced a critical mass of opposition within his caucus. But he didn't wait for anything to break out in the open. Instead, he whipped the rug out from under them. On Nov. 3, 2010, he walked into a cabinet meeting and announced his decision to quit.
Mr. Campbell sought to take with him the baggage that was weighing his party down, giving the B.C. Liberals another shot at survival. We'll know next May whether his gambit was successful but, so far, it has not played out as he intended. The Liberals regained some traction with voters, but under its new leader, Premier Christy Clark, the party has not fully recovered.
Earlier this year, the B.C. Conservatives had the Liberals on the run. This week, the Tories have firmly established themselves as an entertaining sideshow.
The slide began before this week, however. Mr. Cummins – in another tactic inspired by Ms. James – submitted to and won a leadership vote last month. At that time, Mr. Cummins ignored his critics and the 29 per cent of the party membership who voted to find a new leader.
Phil Hochstein was an observer at that meeting. The head of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., he is a leading advocate for unifying the centre-right vote before the next provincial election. Mr. Hochstein said he was impressed with the party's activism, but Mr. Cummins hasn't built an organization that can mount a realistic election campaign.
"It's hard to run a campaign on the budget I saw," Mr. Hochstein observed. And, he suggested, business organizations like his aren't going to hand over wads of cash if the Conservatives continue to flounder.
"People are waiting to see what is happening," he said. "The Conservative tent seems to be in disarray and they don't look like a party that can be government." And that is Mr. Cummins's problem.