There are times when the best thing an opposition leader can do is get out of the way.
For Patrick Brown, this week might have been one of them. On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne appeared at a trial in which one of her former top officials and another prominent provincial Liberal faced charges under the Election Act. Her mere presence at the trial, months before the next election campaign, should have been a clean win for Mr. Brown's Progressive Conservatives, without him having to do a thing.
Clean wins, though, don't come easy to a PC Party that has yet to win a provincial election this millennium. So, Mr. Brown made himself part of this story, in a way that should be setting off alarm bells among provincial Tories living in fear of their party blowing yet another winnable campaign against the baggage-laden Liberals.
If Mr. Brown felt the need to say anything at all ahead of Ms. Wynne's testimony in the Sudbury, Ont., courthouse, he could have said that she had failed to live up to her promises to be different from her scandal-plagued predecessor.
Instead, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, he wrongly said that Ms. Wynne – appearing as a witness, as two other people face charges related to allegedly offering incentives to a would-be by-election candidate to clear the path for a star recruit – was herself standing trial.
This was not a small or subtle error, especially from a law-school graduate hoping to become premier in a matter of months. The obvious move for Mr. Brown would have been to walk it back as a slip of the tongue.
But when Ms. Wynne inevitably responded by threatening a defamation lawsuit – something she also did when another member of the PC caucus recently made a similar error, prompting a quick apology from that MPP – Mr. Brown refused to say he had misspoken. Instead, he doubled down, mocking Ms. Wynne for compounding the "sorry spectacle" of her testimony with a "baseless lawsuit."
On Friday, Ms. Wynne's office said she will give Mr. Brown six weeks to retract his statement before proceeding with the lawsuit. Ms. Wynne may or may not choose to make good on that threat, but the potential legal action shouldn't be the real concern for members of Mr. Brown's party. Rather, it's their leader's inability to follow his own better instincts, or at least the instincts of the people close to him.
Speaking on background about strategy heading into the coming campaign, two of Mr. Brown's top advisers separately indicated recently that they want to be careful to avoid going over the top in their attacks on Ms. Wynne.
It can be tempting for their party to show little restraint on that front, because, at present, the government is unpopular and the premier is really unpopular, with polls showing her approval rating under 20 per cent.
But the Tories, Mr. Brown's officials have said, are wary of creating a backlash to the backlash, in which voters who previously supported Ms. Wynne start to feel more sympathetic toward her again.
That might seem far-fetched, based on where public opinion is currently at, but there are potential contrasts at play.
Ms. Wynne is a 64-year-old grandmother who, in her first campaign at the Liberals' helm, projected a down-to-earth likeability. Mr. Brown is a very youthful 39-year-old with some risk of appearing glib. Leading a party that in recent elections has been successfully portrayed by its rivals as too mean, and that has struggled mightily to attract female voters, he has reason not to show gratuitous disrespect to the province's first female premier.
Mr. Brown's behaviour this week is not about to torpedo his chances, or suddenly put Ms. Wynne on the rebound. On balance it was still a bad week for the Liberals, and the coming weeks could be worse. Another, more serious trial, involving criminal charges against two of her predecessor Dalton McGuinty's staffers related to document destruction before he left office, is on its way. No matter the verdicts, Ontarians are getting a reminder of the government's ethical woes.
But it does raise the question of whether the more that things heat up and the campaign draws closer, Mr. Brown and his team will be capable of the sort of discipline they themselves have identified as a priority.
Just getting out of the way, once that campaign starts, won't be an option; as unpopular as Ms. Wynne may be, Mr. Brown will need to demonstrate he is a suitable replacement, particularly since the NDP's Andrea Horwath may be able to make the same argument. But part of making that case for himself may require showing that when he has been dealt a very good hand, he has the maturity not to overplay it.