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The Globe and Mail

Mud thrown during the Conservative spring cleaning

Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications to Stephen Harper, is a communications consultant based in London.

Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging, and right now Conservative Party leadership candidates are checking their necks for the presence of a noose following allegations of membership vote-rigging.

These kinds of allegations, while extremely serious, are sadly nothing new; dodgy party membership sales are as old as leadership races. And it's even happening right on cue: the membership mud typically flies once the front-runners have separated themselves from the pack but before membership sales close. The deadline for membership sales – and the leadership vote it buys – is March 28.

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What's surprising is the volume and vigour with which the mud is being thrown. What began with a whisper into a reporter's ear from Kevin O'Leary's campaign of a (largely) unsubstantiated claim of membership irregularities has quickly escalated into messy internecine war.

Mr. O'Leary fingered fellow front-runner Maxime Bernier as the culprit, prompting Mr. Bernier to call Mr. O'Leary a "loser" in response. Suspecting a feint, other candidates piped up to ask Mr. O'Leary to put up or shut up. But then the party stepped in to confirm Mr. O'Leary's concerns by revoking more than 1,300 memberships, although the party couldn't say whose campaign was behind the offending sales.

Cue a retaliatory rigging story, this time with Mr. Bernier's supporters impugning the O'Leary campaign's efforts in the Sikh community in Toronto, backed by a sworn affidavit. The O'Leary campaign quickly denied the allegation.

Veracity of the claims aside, the prospect of two leadership contenders being kneecapped by scandal has clearly excited leadership afterthought Lisa Raitt, who is now asking the party to expel any campaign found to be in violation of the rules. Other moribund campaigns are undoubtedly hoping for the same.

Talk about aiming low. Valedictorian isn't much of a title when it's won at summer school, where it feels like most of this Conservative leadership race has been run.

How did the Conservative Party get here?

The poor-but-not-decimating 2015 election result gave way to a vibrant 2016 policy convention. Rona Ambrose has done an excellent job of holding Justin Trudeau's government to account in the House of Commons. This week the Liberals are widely expected to table a second budget full of monster deficits. It should be open season for Conservative leadership hopefuls, not open season on them.

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But here looms, as it does in so many dark Conservative corners, the shadow of Mr. Trudeau.

The long-shot prospect of defeating Mr. Trudeau in 2019 is what kept most of the Conservative Party's heavyweights out of the leadership race. Others had pressing local concerns, as evidenced by Jason Kenney's recent PC leadership win in Alberta.

The loss of many suburban ridings to Mr. Trudeau was also a reminder of how much Conservative support was lost in so-called "new Canadian" communities. The next Conservative leader needs to claim some of it back, which is perhaps why it's no surprise the vote-rigging allegations are coming from the Tamil and Sikh communities of the Greater Toronto Area. Most "old" Canadians are either already signed up or turned off politics entirely; "new" communities offer the best hope for bulk membership growth.

And it's no surprise the first offside flag was waved by Mr. O'Leary, the candidate with absolutely no history with politics or the Conservative Party. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see and call out things to which others have become inured.

The membership fracas is undoubtedly a blow the Conservative Party would have hoped to avoid. The key now will be how quickly and competently the party reacts to clear any foul air.

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