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opinion

Former Conservative Party of Canada leader and Quebec premier Jean Charest in Ottawa on March 2.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Hey kids, gather round and let me tell you about a guy named Jean Charest.

You might not know much about him, especially if you aren’t from Quebec. But once, long ago, he was heavily involved in politics in this country.

Now, he is (for the moment unofficially) running for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Jean Charest says he’s not afraid of a tough battle for Conservative leadership

Yet it’s been a decade since he was voted out of his job as Premier of Quebec. His time in elected federal conservative politics ended nearly a quarter century ago. The party he is coming into now is very different. And he is coming back with a boatload of political baggage.

So, if you young folks go ask your parents about Mr. Charest, you might get a sense that he is a blast from politics past. He was once a young high flyer, a Progressive Conservative MP at 25, later leader of the rebuilding party, and then Quebec premier till his government suffered the bruises of nearly a decade in power. His political career seemed spent years ago.

Yet on paper, Mr. Charest appears to offer many of the things that Conservatives have been saying for years that they desperately need – notably a brand that would make them electable in Ontario suburbs and parts of Quebec.

Inside the Conservative Party, that is by no means enough. A lot of party members don’t really know him. He is a veteran, mainstream politician, but in this race, he is the insurgent.

Like the 2016 U.S. presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Conservative leadership race features a bombastic populist promising to upset elites, Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, against a long-serving but politically pockmarked establishment figure.

But the analogy ends there, and not just because the candidates are very different. It is Mr. Poilievre who is the front-runner. His campaign team includes senior figures from former prime minister Stephen Harper’s era. He is the darling of the rock-ribbed stalwarts of the right who dominate the ranks of card-carrying members. He is the candidate of the party establishment now.

It is Mr. Charest who is the outsider in this race. To win, he would have to sign up a lot of new members, and build a new Conservative coalition.

Mr. Charest can dangle the idea that he can break the electoral pattern that saw Conservatives lose three elections, by winning seats in Quebec, or Liberal seats in Ontario or Atlantic Canada. The old Jean Charest could say it convincingly. Do Conservatives remember him?

Certainly, it would be a good thing for the former premier if people have forgotten the odor of ethical lapses associated with the provincial government he led.

But opponents are apparently banking on the idea that today’s Tories don’t remember Mr. Charest’s conservative roots – that they know he was a Quebec Liberal Party premier, but not remember how that came to be. Some of Mr. Poilievre’s supporters are already attacking Mr. Charest with the party’s most telling insult: that he’s a Liberal.

Of course, Mr. Charest was a Quebec Liberal. But he led that party at a time Quebec politics was divided between federalists and separatists, not left and right. The Quebec Liberal Party, like the separatist Parti Québécois, was a coalition.

Perhaps people have forgotten he was pressed into that job – after a close 1995 referendum, at a time when people believed the charismatic new Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard, was gearing up for another vote on separation.

Mr. Charest was seen as the great federalist hope who could defeat Mr. Bouchard. And although his ambition was to be Prime Minister, a loud draft-Charest campaign insisted that refusing the move to Quebec politics would be national betrayal. They put it that way: “It’s a question of keeping my country together,” William Cusano, a Liberal member of Quebec’s National Assembly said at the time.

“Poor Charest. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t,” author Mordecai Richler wrote then.

A lot has happened since, of course. The current Conservative Party will be asking if he’s conservative enough. He led a centrist provincial government that adopted cap-and-trade for carbon emissions but also spearheaded a “Northern Plan” proposal to develop resources.

He insisted, in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week, that he will run as a blue Conservative, not a Red Tory. But in this race, the establishment politician will be the outsider.

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