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One of the most painful embarrassments in the history of the Conservative Party, currently in the middle of a pivotal leadership campaign, occurred in December, 1979. That was when Joe Clark's minority government blundered – or so we thought – its way to defeat after only seven months in power. It lost a confidence vote that could have been put off.

The consequences were staggering. The collapse brought back Pierre Trudeau, who gave Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It torpedoed Mr. Clark's leadership, enabling the rise of Brian Mulroney. It may have saved the country: had the anglophone Mr. Clark led the 1980 referendum fight instead of Mr. Trudeau, the separatists might have won.

In losing the confidence vote, Mr. Clark and his team have been portrayed as the gang that couldn't count straight, a team of bumblers who needlessly got their signals crossed.

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But there's a serious problem with this depiction of that turning point in Canadian history. It isn't true. Correspondence from Lowell Murray, Mr. Clark's chief strategist at the time, has recently come to light. He writes that he has long been "unjustly accused of being unable to count. My sins are far worse actually. I knew exactly what the numbers were prior to the Commons vote; however I was sure we could and would win the ensuing election."

In other words, the fall of the Clark government was deliberate strategy. Mr. Murray, whose correspondence appears in Tom McMillan's book Not My Party, told me in an interview that he and Mr. Clark reasoned their minority would be defeated down the road anyway. He said Tory House leader Walter Baker, long ridiculed for lacking basic arithmetic, tried to dissuade them. "God rest his soul. He came in to see us and said, 'You know, we could postpone this vote.'"

They wouldn't let him. Following the vote, the top Tories, not wanting to be seen as engineering their own defeat, let on that the Liberals were the villains for bringing them down.

Joe Clark's reputation never recovered. He had unexpectedly won the party leadership at age 37. He was unready and it showed. Some thought Mr. Mulroney was a risk-laden choice as well but he proved critics wrong. But then came another brutal humiliation for the Tories when they put the untested Kim Campbell at the helm. The 1993 election reduced the party to two seats.

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Which brings us to the current leadership battle, wherein the party appears to be entering into another high-risk zone. If the polls are to be believed, it's become a two-man race between newcomer Kevin O'Leary and libertarian Maxime Bernier. Kellie Leitch is far back. The more conventionally styled Tory candidates are not even within shouting range.

Mr. Bernier would be the biggest privatizer the party has ever had as leader. One of his radical planks is to end the federal role in funding health care by transferring tax points to the provinces. This could bring on a Balkanized system as well as more and more privatization. It risks, argues candidate Michael Chong, moving voters away from the party in droves.

Choosing Mr. O'Leary could invite as much, if not more, peril. He has never been elected, has no background in the party, is unilingual, hasn't lived in Canada for years and has a policy kit – decried as juvenile by critics – that is all over the ideological map and devoid of substance.

Both Mr. Bernier and Mr. O'Leary are well funded and have strong organizations, as well as other advantages. It's a race without much volatility. The debates have been largely ignored. The new leadership-voting system means there can be no horse trading come convention time.

Conservatives have good mainstream options to choose from, such as Lisa Raitt, Mr. Chong and Erin O'Toole. But these are not the times here or elsewhere, it seems, for traditional conservative standard bearers. The trend is to go out on a limb. And that's where this party is headed.

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