Doing his best to look relaxed after a week's vacation, Tim Hudak tried to make it sound like the mess to which he has returned is just par for the course.
It is, he said, "just the nature of the job" that some of his fellow Progressive Conservatives are calling for his head in response to disappointing results in Ontario's Aug. 1 by-elections. "When you become leader of the Opposition," he said, "you go through a bit of a procedure where they give you really thick skin and they give you broad shoulders."
Just how thick that skin really is will be tested in the next few months. To nobody's great surprise, Mr. Hudak said Monday that he will not voluntarily submit to a leadership review just because a couple of his caucus members are calling for one. Neither is it likely that dissidents will succeed in amending their party's constitution to allow such a vote at next month's policy convention. Instead, he can expect to go through the most pivotal period of his career – his second and almost certainly final shot at the Premier's office – enduring a steady stream of friendly fire.
Mr. Hudak's loyalists have been pointing out recently that past provincial opposition leaders have faced similar skepticism, only to confound their critics come election time. But to look at one of the comparisons they keep drawing, to the man who won Ontario's last three elections, is only to see how comparatively rough Mr. Hudak has it.
On the surface, Mr. Hudak has much in common with Dalton McGuinty. Both took over parties that had suffered back-to-back election losses, were battered in their first campaigns at the helm, and then overcame calls to step aside by comfortably winning leadership reviews shortly after their defeats.
But that's where the similarities end. Because whereas that review victory convinced most of Mr. McGuinty's critics to either go away or get inside the tent, Mr. Hudak's have seemingly just been waiting for another chance to strike.
That includes Nick Kouvalis, the political consultant Mr. Hudak's supporters believe is behind his current troubles, who has denied trying to unseat Mr. Hudak but has been open about feeling shut out from the party's operations. It may also include Mr. Kouvalis' business partner, Richard Ciano, who was elected party president last year and is widely rumoured to himself have interest in Mr. Hudak's job.
Then there are renegade MPPs Frank Klees and Randy Hillier, each of whom have their own constituencies (social conservative and libertarian, respectively) among Tories. There is a talk-radio and tabloid crowd that holds considerable sway with the party's base. And because, much like the federal Liberals, the provincial Tories never quite adjusted to no longer being a natural governing party, there is an impatience among members that all of these actors can exploit.
That impatience is not entirely unfounded. While Mr. Hudak has put out a much more robust policy agenda that he had previously, even some allies concede his performance in front of the cameras has not improved as much as might have been hoped. And while winning only one of five heretofore Liberal seats up for grabs in the by-elections was not the unmitigated disaster his critics have suggested, the fact that it was the NDP instead of the Tories that captured the normally right-of-centre riding of London West was legitimate cause for concern.
But there is also some chance of his critics' lack of faith in him becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. At Monday's press conference, his topic of choice was transit policy; inevitably, most of the questions he faced were about his job security. If dissent remains the story heading into a likely election next spring, it will make it all the harder for him to get out any messages that might help him reintroduce himself to voters. And if organizers are busy fighting each other, the Tories won't be able to compete on the ground enough to win closely-contested ridings.
Like many other past opposition leaders, Mr. McGuinty had years of relatively smooth runway to prepare for his second campaign. Mr. Hudak was never going to have quite the same luxury, because of the compressed timeframe caused by minority government. But he had to think his party would give him a little more runway than this.