It was a full-circle return when Peter MacKay went to the Museum of Industry in Stellarton, N.S., to announce, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his side, that he's not running for re-election. This was the place where Mr. MacKay announced his 2003 bid for the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative party.
That party is gone, merged with the Canadian Alliance into the new Conservatives, in a pact between Mr. MacKay, the last leader of the PCs, and Mr. Harper. Mr. MacKay is going. Mr. Harper remains.
The departure marked something like the end of an era, and the Prime Minister was careful to bring a message of unity. He came with overflowing praise and called Mr. MacKay "a historic figure." Mr. MacKay is still a symbol of the PCs, and of the Conservatives' soft supporters, who are crucial in an election year.
In his riding of Central Nova, Mr. MacKay is an institution. He's held the seat since 1997. His father, Elmer MacKay, held it before him, even longer. It really was a crowd of MacKay family friends and long-time political aides and volunteers who attended his announcement. "It's a close group," said Jim Ryan, a high-school principal in Pictou, who is a friend and brother-in-law of Mr. MacKay's former chief of staff. And the riding has Progressive Conservative history: It's the safe seat where new leader Brian Mulroney won entry to the Commons in 1983.
Now it's an embattled bastion. Polls show the Conservatives badly trailing the Liberals in Atlantic Canada. With Mr. MacKay not running in October, Central Nova might now be up for grabs in an election where the three other Conservative seats in Nova Scotia were already in play.
One of Mr. MacKay's central political tasks was as ward-heeler for Atlantic Canada, but the party and Mr. Harper are now unpopular, and the region, a strength for the old PCs, is now a weak spot for the Conservatives.
For Mr. MacKay, the exits have been beckoning for a while. He was given key cabinet posts, in Foreign Affairs, on Defence during Canadian mission in Afghanistan, and now the former prosecutor is Justice Minister. But he was never one of Mr. Harper's few cabinet confidantes, or an architect for its policies. In a decade, he'd had all the good jobs he'd get in Mr. Harper's cabinet. He married in 2012, has a young son, and a daughter on the way. There was no doubting his assertion that he was leaving politics for family life, and his heartwarming explanation that he loved politics "but I love my family more."
Mr. Harper's tribute was also noticeably warm, and filled with praise, but it was obviously political, too.
There's no doubt that the Conservatives long ago became Mr. Harper's party, and the merger is long past. But he has to appeal beyond the party's core base to a broader group of soft potential supporters, and they tend be more like the PCs and to dislike Mr. Harper's harder edges, and the idea that it's just Mr. Harper's party.
The Prime Minister spoke extensively about Mr. MacKay's role in the party merger, about how there were two signatures on the agreement, "my own and Peter's." It changed the course of Canadian politics, he noted, at a time when a Paul Martin landslide was a foregone conclusion. "It took a spirit of humility, and it took a willingness to compromise," he said.
Those are the kinds of characteristics Mr. Harper is often accused of lacking, of course, and that's what turns off some of those soft supporters. The PM went to Nova Scotia to speak about Mr. MacKay, and his speech was about a broad party.
Mr. MacKay, too, expressed gratitude to Mr. Harper, and insisted that he's still on the team and will campaign for the party this fall. "I'm not jumping ship," he told reporters who asked if was bailing because of the party's poor fortunes in Atlantic Canada.
On the scale of his accomplishments, he said he placed the Conservative merger behind things he'd done for Nova Scotia, though he said "reuniting the Conservative family" was a "point of pride." Then he noted that he had negotiated for internal voting rules like the old PC party had – at pains to insist, years later, that he got a good deal for his former partisans.
It's Mr. Harper, however, who really wanted to mark the moment by stressing unity. His cohort, the prominent politicians in the cabinet when he came to power, are mostly gone, and the last leader of the PCs is gone, and Mr. Harper remains. But he wanted to send a message to soft supporters that the Conservative Party is still a big tent.