The stakes of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives' manic sprint of a leadership contest just got even higher.
From the moment of Patrick Brown's sudden resignation four weeks ago, this stood out as a contest of unusual consequence – a party leading in the polls, choosing someone to lead it into a general election almost immediately upon taking the helm. And when it was shaping up as a clash between Doug Ford, Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, it already seemed to be a fight for that party's soul.
But now that Mr. Brown has been approved after much deliberation to seek the job he vacated amid sexual misconduct allegations, it may be the party's very survival – at least in anything remotely resembling past form – that hangs in the balance.
Mr. Brown retaking the helm of the caucus that forced him out as leader and from which he has since been punted altogether – amid allegations now about the party's financial and organizational management under his watch, alongside the unresolved sexual-misconduct ones – would make for an almost unfathomable mess. But it is far from impossible that he will win the contest to do so, given large constituencies within the party's general membership with which he commands loyalty.
Therein lies the gamble that, consciously or not, the PCs' nominations committee took when it decided on Wednesday to green-light him to run as a riding-level candidate, clearing his only real hurdle to enter the leadership race.
After the Tories announce the results of their vote on March 10, Ontarians may look back on that decision as one that paid off in spades. That is, if Mr. Brown loses, and his hostage hold on his party is released in a way it could not have been otherwise.
Given the way Mr. Brown has behaved the past month, there is no chance he would have quietly slunk away with his tail between his legs if the committee had blocked him.
Almost certainly he would have tried to appeal to the party's executive, gone to court, or both. He would also likely have continued his public-relations assault on anyone he believes has wronged him – the Tories' interim leader, former members of his own staff he claims were behind a palace coup, the media, the two women who made the sexual-misconduct allegations. And in the process he would have continued whipping into a frenzy members of the party who believe there is a conspiracy against him: a crew that includes his personal friends, constituents around his hometown of Barrie, nominated party candidates with whom he has had mutually supportive relationships, and a certain type of conservative inclined toward men's rights activism.
This drama would have persisted long past the leadership vote. But if Mr. Brown is rejected by party members, it will be harder for him to command attention insisting that he was the victim of elites trampling over the will of the grassroots.
But what if the membership – a majority of which signed up while Mr. Brown was still leader, in many cases at the behest of organizers loyal to him – doesn't reject him?
It's doubtful even Mr. Brown has really considered what his renewed leadership would look like. For anyone who pauses to do so, the notion that the Tories could return to some semblance of normalcy – let alone pick up where Mr. Brown left off in presenting a moderate and low-risk alternative to the governing Liberals – is absurd.
The initial allegations about his relationships with women reported by CTV last month will probably not be resolved by then. And whatever happens with those specific complaints, he has had exposed a lifestyle – partying with young female staff, for instance – not generally considered to befit a premier.
Meanwhile, questions that have come to light about his management of the party – among them the apparent inflation of membership numbers, the excess of lawsuits draining funds, strange goings-on such as his discussions to receive $375,000 in a business deal with someone acclaimed to run as a PC candidate under his watch – would make him ethically challenged like no opposition leader in memory.
Whatever voters might make of that – and up against a deeply unpopular Liberal government, anything is possible – the bad blood between Mr. Brown and most of the Tories' other higher-ups suggests he would face a revolt from almost the moment he took over.
Mass caucus resignations would at least seem inevitable. Campaign professionals, of the sort Mr. Brown brought in after a rocky start in his first stint as leader (and was abandoned by as soon as the allegations hit), would stay far away.
With only his loyalists on board, it would become the Patrick Brown Party in a way it wasn't before – so much so that it's not out of the question the party would split in two.
Those, again, are the stakes. They're high enough that it's worth pulling out all the stops for the rest of this leadership campaign – not just for Mr. Brown, but for Tories who want to be rid of him.
The civil war may get even uglier over the next 15 days. It will be up to the PC membership to decide if it ends then, or if this is their future.