"Look, I know that there are a lot of goings-on at City Hall," Tim Hudak pleaded this week. "But there are other issues that we need to deal with in the province of Ontario."
The Progressive Conservative Leader's frustration was understandable. He wanted, quite reasonably, to make the case for the province's Auditor-General to review the government's books before the election widely expected for next spring. But the only topic anyone wanted to ask him about was Rob Ford.
It is not just Mr. Hudak who has found himself knocked off-topic. A couple of weeks ago, Ms. Wynne's Liberals issued a fall economic statement supposed to help them pivot to a new set of priorities; it received only fleeting notice before attention drifted back to the circus down the road. Mr. Ford is now only nominally at the helm of a government about one-10th the size of the provincial one, but he is still sucking the air away from all three parties at Queen's Park.
But if Mr. Ford is an annoyance and a distraction for the Liberals and New Democrats, he is something more dangerous for the Tories – a ticking time bomb that has finally gone off after Mr. Hudak spent three years dancing around it.
Spending time among Toronto's chattering classes, Mr. Hudak undoubtedly heard the rumours about Mr. Ford's assorted transgressions. He may not have guessed that the mayor smoked crack, associated with members of violent criminal gangs, or would defend himself against reports of sexual harassment by offering jaw-dropping accounts of his marital sex life. But a provincial leader who is disciplined to a fault had to know roughly what might happen to a fellow politician who makes up for any discipline at all with a crippling sense of entitlement.
But Mr. Hudak was also drawn to the pull the conservative-minded Mr. Ford has with voters in suburban ridings the Tories have not been able to capture since the 1990s. And particularly after he lost his first election as PC Leader, in 2011, that consideration won out more often than not.
All but visibly holding his nose, Mr. Hudak has intermittently appeared alongside Mr. Ford at public events. He has signed on to Mr. Ford's crusade for subways over less expensive forms of public transit. He has said that he would welcome Doug Ford, the brother who makes the mayor look sympathetic and politically deft by comparison, as a PC candidate in the next election, never mind the Fords' half-baked scheme for Doug to supplant Mr. Hudak as leader.
Or at least, Mr. Hudak did all that until this week. Genuine repulsion at the spectacle Mr. Ford has recently made of himself should not be discounted as an explanation for why Mr. Hudak has now called on him to get help, and indicated he would be open to empowering Toronto's council to suspend him from office. But it also seems plain that the Tories have decided the risk of this relationship has come to outweigh the reward.
It has always been questionable whether the mayor could deliver all of "Ford Nation" – some of whose members usually vote Liberal in provincial elections, or not at all – to a prototypical politician who lacks his populism. But back when Mr. Ford commanded the backing of nearly half of all Toronto voters, winning even a chunk of his supporters perhaps made the uneasy alliance worth it. Now the pie has shrunk considerably, and meanwhile being seen as a Ford ally has become more of a liability with everyone else.
The problem for Mr. Hudak is that relationship history cannot just be erased. Mr. Ford was partly bumped from the news on Wednesday, albeit by a scandal involving Mr. Hudak's federal cousins that is no less problematic for him, but no doubt revelations are still to come about the mayor. Still, Mr. Hudak runs the risk of being caught betwixt and between, seen by the mayor's friends as a traitor and by some of his foes as an enabler.
He is trying to walk a fine line, by expressing concern for the mayor rather than contempt, and that is not much different from what the other provincial party leaders are doing. But they did not stand alongside him before, so they do not have as much to fear if his foibles are still front-and-centre in a few months' time.