For Ontario Progressive Conservatives, the first response to sexual-misconduct allegations against their leader was the relatively easy part.
Telling Patrick Brown in no uncertain terms that he had to go, as caucus members did in conference calls late on Wednesday night, was a no-brainer. That was obvious from watching him stand before reporters hours earlier to deny emerging allegations of misdeeds involving teenagers – fighting back tears, running away from the cameras – and imagining him at the helm of an election campaign in the #MeToo era. Taking quick, decisive action to prevent that from happening even allowed MPPs to feel good about themselves, united in their certainty about doing the right thing.
Then, in the cold light of day, the hard part began.
Having Mr. Brown gone by morning was one thing; figuring out how to replace him in time for this spring's provincial campaign is already proving quite another – one that points to a potentially divisive identity crisis in which the Tories suddenly find themselves.
By late Thursday, they were locked in a fight about how to rapidly stage their unexpected leadership contest. On one side is the caucus, or much of it anyway, that wants to keep the choice in its own hands.
That side seeks to pick an "interim" leader, widely predicted to be North Bay MPP Vic Fedeli, and let him stay through the June 7 fixed-election date. On the other are nominated candidates, influential party veterans and others pushing for the decision to be put to the general membership as usual.
Neither option is ideal, which perhaps explains why a meeting of the party executive on Thursday evening wound up with the decision being punted until after the interim leader is chosen on Friday, which is unusual to say the least. The general membership vote would have to be so compressed that it could prove disastrously chaotic. Leaving it to caucus to choose from within its own ranks would not only risk alienating the grassroots, but also likely limit the field – ruling out the likes of Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips, recent recruits as star riding-level candidates, not to mention Christine Elliott, the former MPP who was runnerup to Mr. Brown last time around.
But even if the Tories manage to land on a reasonably smooth process, and even if they select someone who under the right circumstances could win over Ontarians, the challenges go beyond mere short-term logistics. That's because the new leader will have a very short amount of time in which to make sense of a party recently rebuilt according to Mr. Brown's vision for it.
Mr. Brown was far from beloved: Many provincial Tories considered him an interloper after he leaped from life as a federal Conservative backbencher to lead their party, and more than a few plainly considered him an intellectual lightweight. But he worked enormously hard, energizing the party and filling its coffers as he hustled his way around the province. That, and strong polling numbers that had more to do with the Liberals' unpopularity, were enough to give him leeway with many PCs who just wanted to win an election for the first time this millennium.
Mr. Brown used that leeway to usher in Red Toryism not seen in Ontario since the Bill Davis era ended more than three decades ago. Embracing social spending and some manner of carbon pricing, declining even to go too hard against government policies such as a rapid increase of the province's minimum wage, he seemed to be trying to convey to Ontarians that they could get a fresh face without a dramatic shift from the Liberals' values.
That was not the way many other would-be PC leaders would have run, at the helm of a party with a more conservative caucus and support base, and it may be deeply uncomfortable for whomever winds up his replacement. But it also happens to have been enshrined as the party's 2018 platform, copies of which – with Mr. Brown's face unhelpfully plastered on the cover – have already been distributed around the province. Trying to lurch back toward whatever brand of conservatism the next leader prefers could make for a nasty case of whiplash among Tories trying to figure out what exactly it is they're trying to sell.
Meanwhile, the machine supposed to deliver that sales job has been almost entirely constructed by Mr. Brown, for Mr. Brown.
After taking over a shell of a party, organizationally, he loaded up its highest levels with trusted allies, reminders of which were served to the Tories on Thursday. The party president presiding over the leadership-process debate is Rick Dykstra, a former MP who is buddies with Mr. Brown (and also happened to lose his seat in the past federal election after a report that he purchased alcohol for teenaged girls in a nightclub). The party lawyer, Mike Richmond, has been one of Mr. Brown's closest friends since their days in youth politics.
Meanwhile, the membership ranks, which have increased dramatically since he took over, are now filled largely with members of immigrant communities to which he had strong personal ties. He had a strong hand in candidate recruitment, and some of the party's nominees are his personal friends.
It's anyone's guess how many of the people Mr. Brown brought into the tent will now choose to exit it. So with a couple of months at most to prepare for the election and introduce himself or herself to Ontarians, his successor will either have to start virtually from scratch, or work with an apparatus custom-built for a leader last seen literally fleeing the building.
Possibly it will prove a good fit, and the PCs will reach heights Mr. Brown could not have led them to even without the allegations that felled him. But it's uncharted territory the Tories are headed into, and it's unlikely they'll be as unified figuring out how to navigate it as they were in tossing Mr. Brown overboard.