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Patrick Brown addresses the Conservative Party convention in Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Progressive Conservatives will choose a new leader to replace Patrick Brown on March 10, kick-starting one of the party's shortest campaigns in recent memory.

Jag Badwal, interim president of the PC Party, said in a statement late on Wednesday that the party has a "path forward to selecting our next Leader and future Premier." The announcement marks the official launch of a leadership race just four months before the provincial election.

Former Toronto councillor Doug Ford is the only contender so far. Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Rod Phillips, the former head of Postmedia News have been mentioned as possible candidates, along with former MPP Christine Elliott, who finished second to Mr. Brown in 2015.

Vic Fedeli, who was named Interim Leader by Progressive Conservative MPPs last Friday, a day after Mr. Brown resigned, had planned to seek the permanent leadership. He bowed out on Tuesday, saying he had to devote all of his time to addressing problems within the party, including the legitimacy of tens of thousands of new party members signed up during his predecessor's 2.5-year reign.

Mr. Brown resigned last Thursday after a CTV News report alleged sexual misconduct involving two young women. He has denied the allegations and remains in caucus. During his leadership, he said the party's membership ranks swelled from 10,000 to 200,000.

The party must determine how many members it has before the race gets under way. Candidates will have only 30 days to sign up new members.

Party officials have no idea of the extent to which its memberships rolls are inflated. Would-be nominees for the Progressive Conservatives and local party officials in as many as 14 ridings across Ontario have complained about voter fraud and ballot-stuffing.

Mr. Fedeli announced on Tuesday that he has ordered a probe into the names and addresses of every party member. "I plan to root out the rot," he said.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives took steps in recent years to tighten their own membership process by requiring new recruits to pay by credit card or cheque. A spokesman for the Conservatives said the party banned cash payments in 2015. The change was designed to prevent bulk purchases, traditionally done with wads of untraceable cash.

The Globe and Mail has confirmed with two senior party insiders that the Ontario Progressive Conservatives also debated banning cash payments before the 2015 leadership race. But the party executive opted to continue accepting cash, as long as those signing up in person put their signature on the membership form, according to one of the insiders. If someone signed up online and paid with a credit card, the card had to be in the individual's name, the insider said.

Mr. Brown's resignation has sharply divided the Progressive Conservative Party. Tory MPPs had recommended to the party executive that Mr. Fedeli lead them into the provincial election. But the party executive overruled caucus, voting by a slim margin to choose a successor to Mr. Brown before the election.

In Ottawa on Wednesday, Conservative MP Alex Nuttall accused his provincial cousins of orchestrating an "inside job" to remove Mr. Brown and "circumventing democracy."

He told reporters on Parliament Hill that Ontario's Progressive Conservative MPPs – whom he described as the "28 elites" whose ridings represent less than 1 per cent of the party's members – did not have the moral authority to choose the leader who would try to unseat the governing Liberals.

A spokesman for Mr. Fedeli said his boss would not respond to Mr. Nuttall's comments.

During the two minutes he spoke to reporters, Mr. Nuttall did not elaborate on what he meant by an "inside job" and did not answer any questions afterward.

Mr. Nuttall represents the federal riding of Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte in Ontario.

Ontario’s new PC interim leader says he won’t sign Patrick Brown’s nomination papers while sexual misconduct allegations against the former leader stand. Vic Fedeli says Brown has been asked to take a “leave of absence.”

The Canadian Press

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