Last Friday was Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s lucky day. Just after he unveiled a cabinet shuffle aimed at relaunching his government after a gaffe-filled year, he was suddenly mired in a new embarrassing patronage scandal and his right-hand man, Dean French, had to quit.
Mr. Ford was reportedly angry that Mr. French’s appointment of friends to plum posts abroad had upstaged his big cabinet shuffle. He shouldn’t be. It was a useful crisis.
The scandal that rid him of Mr. French is the real opportunity for a reboot. Mr. Ford is an unusual politician and he had an obvious rookie leader problem: He is a non-managing premier who let an aide mismanage government.
His government has been famously mired in missteps and chaos since it took power. It turned the parents of autistic children into implacable opponents. The appointment of an OPP commissioner became a vivid case of nepotism that apparently only Mr. Ford could not see. Ontarians saw chaos at Queen’s Park. Mr. French was accused of bullying cabinet ministers and staffers and even berating an MPP until she was driven to tears.
The cabinet shuffle was supposed to be a fresh start. But it was never going to be.
Sure, Mr. Ford demoted ministers associated with the missteps, such as Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod, who carried the empathy-deficient policy for autistic children as minister of children, community and social services, and was bumped down to singing the merits of provincial parks as Tourism Minister.
But a big part of that shuffle seemed to be trimming down ministers who had standing of their own. People in the Premier’s Office whispered that Vic Fedeli lost the finance minister’s post because the budget was poorly received, but there were also the scars from an internal fight: Mr. Ford, who isn’t a fiscal conservative, didn’t want the government’s first budget to include any timetable for balancing the books. In any case, bouncing your finance minister after one budget doesn’t say reboot as much as turmoil.
It didn’t take an expert to see that Mr. Ford’s problems didn’t really stem from weak ministers. It was an unfocused Premier who relied, completely, on a chaotic aide who seemed to threaten his own team more than the opposition. There were regular reports that MPPs and staffers felt they were being pushed around. The chief of staff was an especially dangerous weakness: He was the Ford government’s biggest problem, but the Premier couldn’t do without him.
So Mr. Ford’s stroke of luck was that there was suddenly a patronage scandal with Mr. French’s fingerprints all over it: A 26-year-old friend of Mr. French’s son was appointed to be the province’s representative in New York, and a second cousin of Mr. French’s wife the representative in London. Mr. French had to go.
Now, Doug Ford has an opportunity to become Premier of Ontario. In more than name.
It seems pretty clear that he won’t hold the reins by himself. You don’t hear Queen’s Park Tories talking like Mr. Ford would ever do that. No one ever describes him as a hands-on premier. He’s not known for being consistent. He won’t run the machinery of government. He clearly felt he needed a senior aide he trusted.
Now, the logical thing would be for Mr. Ford to turn a new trusted right hand. The inner circle starts with the two others who ran his campaign alongside Mr. French: Kory Teneycke, a former communications director for then-prime minister Stephen Harper, and Chris Froggatt, a veteran political staffer in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park.
The trick for Mr. Ford is getting one of them into the key job in the Premier’s Office. Aside from the toll it takes on personal lives, Mr. Froggatt and Mr. Teneycke have each launched lucrative government-relations firms with consultants busy lobbying Mr. Ford’s government.
Mr. Froggatt would be an obvious choice. He isn’t volcanic. He’d be expected to establish a professional management style. He’d hardly have to do anything to be welcomed by the Tory caucus. He could improve the government’s performance simply by not making as many chaotic moves.
And for Mr. Ford, who relies on his chief of staff, that’s a golden opportunity for a real reboot.