Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has sworn off raising divisive social issues in the wake of this week's Scarborough by-election, whose final days were dominated by a recanted Tory promise to scrap the province's sexual-education curriculum.
"I have no interest in wading into social issues," Mr. Brown told reporters at a victory party for Raymond Cho, the city councillor who pulled Scarborough-Rouge River away from the reigning Liberals on Thursday. "The lesson for me is to continue to focus on the fundamentals: on hydro, on jobs, on health care."
On the other PC hot potato that emerged during the campaign – the role of colourful, controversial former city councillor Doug Ford in the party – Mr. Brown was less definitive.
Asked if he thought that Mr. Ford would be a good addition to the Tory caucus, he paused. "Well, I think Doug would be a good candidate. But there would be a number of good candidates who may be interested in Etobicoke," he said. "I think all the people coming forward for nominations are good, qualified candidates."
While the by-election served as a midterm referendum on Premier Kathleen Wynne's government, it also shone a spotlight onto her chief opponent as he handled two of his party's thorniest and most divisive files.
The sex-ed pledge emerged last week in a letter signed by Mr. Brown and distributed in the riding. When the missive was first uncovered by reporters, he defended it. But after a few days, he disavowed the letter – for which he blamed rogue campaign staffers – and vowed support for the curriculum.
Both Mr. Cho and Mr. Ford, who co-managed his campaign, have also denied penning it; Mr. Ford said on Thursday that he didn't even see the document until it was reported by The Toronto Sun. The Canadian Press learned that Mr. Brown's chief of staff distributed the letter
Mr. Ford's re-emergence in a prominent PC role has put Mr. Brown in a quandary.
Some party insiders fret that Mr. Ford's outsized personality and spicy, off-script soundbites threaten to overshadow the low-key Mr. Brown. Others, however, argue that his popularity – and that of his brother, the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford – is still an asset to the party in places like Scarborough.
The provincial Tories have a complicated relationship with the Fords. Ahead of the 2014 provincial election, afraid that the presence of Doug Ford would make it impossible for the Tories to get their message out, then-leader Tim Hudak's staff quietly discouraged him from running. According to one person with knowledge of the conversations, Mr. Hudak's circle emphasized to Mr. Ford that his younger brother needed his help at city hall.
Asked if he wanted Mr. Ford as a candidate in 2018, Mr. Brown demurred. "Doug is considering a number of options. I know he's got business interests, remaining municipal interests and he has some provincial interests," he said. "I'll let Doug speak to that. I'm not going to be getting involved in the nominations."
Mr. Ford said at Mr. Cho's victory party that he is still weighing his options. "Let's see what happens over the next year," he said. "I think Patrick's a great leader."
Either way, Mr. Brown now must find a way to translate a major symbolic victory into a broader groundswell of support.
And some Liberals were only too eager to point out that success in by-elections, which typically see a lower voter turnout and a disproportionate concentration of resources by all parties, is not always a sign of greater things.
In 2013, Doug Holyday became the first Tory in 14 years to win a seat in Toronto with a by-election victory in Etobicoke-Lakeshore – only to lose the riding less than a year later in a general election.
"The last PCPO 'Toronto breakthrough' was Doug Holyday. #whereishenow," tweeted Liberal MPP Peter Milczyn, who carried the Liberal standard in the riding for both of those contests.
With files from The Canadian Press