Tim Hudak is on vacation. But it's hard to imagine he's been getting much rest.
What has happened in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader's absence appears to be a grassroots revolt. Ten London-area activists filed motions with their party aimed at forcing a leadership review at its September policy conference. The talk-radio crowd, frustrated with Mr. Hudak's inability to knock off the governing Liberals, piled on. A couple of rogue MPPs, Frank Klees and Randy Hillier, called for Mr. Hudak to voluntarily submit to such a vote. All this in response to disappointing results in the province's Aug. 1 by-elections.
But to Mr. Hudak's loyalists, it has the look of something less-than-spontaneous. They're pointing fingers at their party president, Richard Ciano, and especially at his business partner Nick Kouvalis – the political operative best known for running Rob Ford's successful campaign for Toronto's mayoralty. Both men, they claim, are making trouble for Mr. Hudak because they feel shut out of the party's operations. And according to one increasingly widespread rumour, their hope is to ultimately steer Mr. Ciano into Mr. Hudak's job.
Mr. Kouvalis helped fuel suspicions when he penned an article this week saying that Mr. Hudak failed to heed lessons from his defeat in the province's 2011 election, and ominously questioning whether he would be able to convince party members at next month's gathering that he is capable of changing.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hudak's supporters point to the fact that in 2008, Mr. Kouvalis aligned himself with attempts by the same group of London activists to unseat then-leader John Tory.
Mr. Kouvalis vehemently denies allegations that he's involved in such an effort now. "I'm not one to hide what I do," he told The Globe and Mail this week. "When I was actively organizing against John Tory's leadership on behalf of caucus members like Tim Hudak, I did it out in the open. I can state explicitly in this case that while I have expressed concerns about the direction of the PC Party, I am not in any way actively organizing against the leader."
Mr. Ciano, who himself has been on holiday, said by e-mail that suggestions of his involvement are "nonsense," and stressed that a constitutional process will decide whether a review vote is held. He did not respond to a question about whether he would be interested in Mr. Hudak's job if it came open.
On that front, multiple sources – including PC strategists, staffers and organizers – allege that Mr. Ciano has been using his position with the party (which he won by besting Mr. Hudak's preferred candidate, John Snobelen) to lay the groundwork for a leadership campaign. They note that he has travelled the province more than most previous presidents, and claim he has enlisted organizers.
While Mr. Ciano's ambitions remain the subject of speculation, Mr. Kouvalis has made no secret of his displeasure with not being more involved in Mr. Hudak's campaign planning, and his view that his company has been shut out from party contracts. Given his organizational prowess, it's widely recognized that he's capable of proving a point on that front if he so chooses.
As for the two caucus members who stirred the pot, neither appears to be aligned with Mr. Kouvalis, Mr. Ciano or anyone else who might be behind the initial review calls. But the interest of Mr. Klees in particular adds to Mr. Hudak's worries because of his currency with the Tories' evangelical wing. That allowed him to place a strong second to Mr. Hudak in the party's 2009 leadership contest, and could allow him to affect the complexion of the September convention.
None of this is likely to be enough to actually overthrow Mr. Hudak before the next election, but it could cause severe embarrassment going into it. So by the end of the week, the Tories were trying to head off the problem by trotting out an array of MPPs to defend Mr. Hudak.
Most of them directed their scorn toward Mr. Klees, who is not popular among his colleagues, but at least one hinted at what others are chattering about privately.
"These guys, their company has been involved in campaigns before," Steve Clark, who represents the riding of Leeds-Grenville, said of Mr. Kouvalis and Mr. Ciano. "To me, we need to have everybody inside the tent. We don't need people outside the tent; we don't need people shooting inside the tent. This has got to stop."