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Opinion Chaotic times in Ontario politics prove it’s wise to expect the unexpected

In The Disaster Artist, showing in cinemas now, James Franco plays an oddball film director who makes a movie so bad that people watch it just to marvel at its awfulness.

The recent performance of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party has the same quality. A fail this epic is mesmerizing to watch. Calling it a dumpster fire sells it short. Even train wreck doesn't capture it. This is political disaster on a heroic scale.

Let's review. Just a couple of weeks ago the Tories were sailing toward a likely triumph in June's provincial election. Their rivals, the Liberals, in power since 2003, were on the ropes. A judge had just convicted an aide to former premier Dalton McGuinty of destroying government records. That gave the Tories a nice boost, reminding voters about the 2011 gas-plants scandal that was the backdrop to the case.

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Then: boom. PC Leader Patrick Brown found himself accused of sexual misbehaviour. He barely had time to blurt out a denial before his party ousted him, hustling him out the door in the middle of the night without the fuss and muss of an investigation.

In a few wild hours, Mr. Brown went from probable premier of Canada's most populous province to spurned has-been, his career wrecked, his reputation blackened.

His party has been in wild disarray ever since.

One Tory legislator, interim leader Vic Fedeli, announced with ringing conviction that he would vie to lead the party into the coming election, only to drop out and say the party was riddled with "rot." The party president stepped down over a separate sexual-misconduct allegation that he, as with Mr. Brown, categorically denies. Party bigwigs feuded over whether to hold a snap leadership vote or just march into the election with a stand-in leader, finally settling on a vote.

Doug Ford, big brother and chief defender of Toronto's infamous former mayor Rob Ford, jumped into the race with a weird rant about seizing back the party from mysterious "elites." Next in was Christine Elliott, a 62-year-old party stalwart and widow of federal finance minister Jim Flaherty who might as well have "yesterday's news" stamped on her forehead.

Waiting in the wings are Rod Phillips, who until recently served as board chair of Postmedia, overseeing the distinguished executive team that has been paring away at the withered body of Canada's biggest newspaper chain with a blunt knife; and Caroline Mulroney, a 43-year-old lawyer who has never held or even run for political office and who bears the name of a former prime minister who left that post as one of the most unpopular political leaders of recent times. If she were to become premier, Canada would have the son of one prime minister presiding on Parliament Hill and the daughter of another at Queen's Park. Who says that only North Korea and the Philippines can have dynastic politics?

All of this is entertaining in that so-bad-it's-good sort of way. But the Ontarians who must be enjoying it most are Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory.

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Ms. Wynne seemed headed for a richly deserved defeat in June. With the gas-plants scandal, the Ornge ambulance mess and a string of other black marks on her party's record, not to mention a doubling of the provincial debt and a spectacular mismanagement of the power system, she has more baggage than a Pearson carousel at March Break. Now, thanks to the Tories, she has a chance to win another term as premier.

If she does, she will have her generous Tory opponents to thank, and not for the first time either. Two previous PC leaders, Mr. Tory and Tim Hudak, blew a chance to defeat the Liberals – Mr. Tory by promising public funding for religious schools and Mr. Hudak by pledging to slash 100,000 jobs from the public service. Both ideas were tone-deaf and ultimately fatal.

If the PCs were to bungle an election a third time, it would set some kind of record for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

As for Mr. Tory, he has been looking over his shoulder at Doug Ford ever since taking office as mayor in 2014. Mr. Ford was a close runner-up in that election and announced last fall that he would give it another go. Now, this grinning Trump impersonator says he has abandoned his mayoral ambitions to seek the Ontario PC leadership. He insists he won't jump back into the contest for mayor even if he loses his attempt to lead the Progressive Conservatives (although with Mr. Ford, you never know).

So Mr. Tory finds himself suddenly relieved of his most serious rival. In fact, with no one challenging him from the left side of the spectrum either, he has no obvious rival at all. He is trying hard not to look overpleased.

Of course, a lot could change in the months before the provincial vote on June 7 and the mayoral one on Oct. 22. The Tories could right themselves, elect a credible new leader with more depth than Mr. Brown and win after all. The whole mess might seem like old news by the time voters get around to choosing who should be premier.

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Just because Mr. Tory is sitting pretty now doesn't mean he won't face a challenge in the fall. Although no one on city council looks like a serious rival, someone could jump in from outside municipal politics or even from outside the political world altogether. Mr. Tory himself broke the usual pattern when he ran without first earning a seat on council. Established, status-quo candidates are proving vulnerable these days, and Mr. Tory is about as establishment as they come.

If the past couple of weeks have shown anything, it is that assumptions that seem unassailable one day can crumble like sand castles the next.

This movie is not over yet.

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