The Conservative leadership race has taken off with former federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay’s announcement that he is in.
The campaign launch on Wednesday ends months of speculation over whether Mr. MacKay would run to replace outgoing leader Andrew Scheer. Mr. Scheer resigned in December after a disappointing election loss and as it was revealed he was paying for his children’s private school tuition with party money. The new leader will be chosen on June 27.
“I’m in. Stay tuned,” Mr. MacKay said on Twitter. Spokesman Michael Diamond said Mr. MacKay will announce the direction of his campaign formally next week.
During the fall election campaign, The Globe and Mail reported that Mr. MacKay’s supporters were laying the groundwork for a possible leadership bid if the Conservatives did not win with Mr. Scheer.
While he would not say he planned to run, Mr. MacKay openly criticized Mr. Scheer’s performance after the election, comparing Mr. Scheer’s chances to “having a breakaway on an open net and missing.”
Mr. MacKay told a panel at the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington the Conservatives lost because their leader failed to deal with questions about his socially conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage, which he said “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross.”
Mr. MacKay, a partner in the Toronto law firm Baker McKenzie, is popular in Conservative circles. He was a cabinet minister in Stephen’s Harper government in justice, defence and foreign affairs portfolios from 2006 to 2015.
He was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party until he negotiated a merger with Mr. Harper’s Canadian Alliance in 2003. This led to the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada, ending a decade of vote splitting on the right.
Mr. MacKay was expected to seek the leadership after the Harper government’s defeat, but said in 2016 the time wasn’t right for his young family.
Alberta Conservative MP Blaine Calkins called Mr. MacKay a “unifier” who could win in “every region of this country.”
Mr. MacKay has hired experienced campaigners to help him. Former Conservative MP Alex Nuttall, who played a key role in Maxime Bernier’s 2017 leadership bid, is the campaign manager.
Mr. MacKay has hired Rubicon Strategy Inc., a government relations and digital marketing firm, to provide services during the campaign. The firm was founded by Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke, who pushed to oust Mr. Scheer as leader. Mr. Teneycke, who ran Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s successful 2018 election campaign, said he will stay neutral.
The firm’s vice-president of digital, Emrys Graefe, who also worked on Mr. Bernier’s team, will run the campaign’s digital operations.
Rubicon’s executive chairman Mike Coates, formerly campaign chair for television personality Kevin O’Leary’s aborted leadership bid, is supporting Mr. MacKay, but has no formal role.
While the campaign officially began on Monday, only two candidates have officially entered.
Conservative MP for the Ontario riding Sarnia-Lambton Marilyn Gladu announced her candidacy last week, saying the Tories need to “expand the base” to win the next election.
Ms. Gladu said she is happy to see “as many excellent candidates as we can get.” She said Mr. MacKay is “very well liked” and has “great name recognition," adding that she will be interested to hear his policy ideas.
Ontario Conservative MPs Erin O’Toole and Pierre Poilievre have been preparing campaigns, but have not formally entered.
Jean Charest, the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and ex-Quebec premier, plans to announce his intentions before the end of the month, according to a member of his team.
Also on Wednesday, former prime minister Mr. Harper withdrew from his position on the Conservative Fund – the not-for-profit organization that raises the money to run the party. Conservatives did not provide a reason, although party spokesman Cory Hann confirmed Mr. Harper’s departure.
“His contributions, support and wise counsel to the board over the past many years has been appreciated," Mr. Hann said.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Alex Nuttall is a Conservative MP. He is a former MP.