These are tough days to be a conservative in Northumberland. Unlike the simpler days when Tories ruled the county almost unchallenged, these days the rolling hills are not painted as deep a color of true blue.
Talking with local Tories last week was insightful. The Canadian Alliance barbecue at Gord Gilchrist’s farm in Haldimand Township was an important watermark. It was a chance for politicians and some higher profile conservatives to come out of the closet in support of the new federal party.
Beside the horde of media being towed around by the candidates, there were plenty of local journalists taking stock, seeing which conservatives were jumping ship to join the new fleet. Also numerous Tories and some local Liberals were also cranking their necks to see who was there.
Northumberland MPP Doug Galt andScarborough MPP Steve Gilchrist got a chance to mark their respective turf. Nobody is about to talk about their political future right now, but don’t be shocked if one or both of these men are planning to vie for the Canadian Alliance candidacy. Galt has the strength of two provincial victories and Gilchrist has nothing to lose. After his summary dismissal from cabinet, there is little stopping him from moving on to federal politics and a party that potentially would embrace him gladly. A tough, shrewd politician, it was not an accident his father hosted the event.
There are plenty of Tories still sitting in the weeds waiting to see what is going to land before taking any shots. Many of the rank and file members, those who are not active between elections must be straining to figure out what to do.
Those who are true blue Progressive Conservatives are playing down the weekend. Several disputed the attendance numbers saying only 250 to 300 actually showed up. It’s always a guess when nobody sells tickets. Spin doctors regularly inflate attendance to pump up support.
The number is small regardless. In the past, just before an election, up to 1,000 new memberships will be sold, one said.
Roger Wilson, a former campaign manager and executive member for the Conservatives, said most Tories are staying quite out of respect for the democratic process. Political parties stay away from commenting on the competition. You will rarely seek a Liberal speak about NDP candidate selections. After the Canadian Alliance selects its new on June 9, then expect the gloves to come off. He predicts the Alliance will fade away like the Social Credit Party, especially if Preston Manning is elected.
If it were only that simple.
There are lots of local Tories who are not happy with Conservative leader Joe Clark. Many are not ready to hold their noses and vote for a party with weak leadership. If the heart of the issue is winning the next election, then many will go with Canadian Alliance because they see it may have a better chance to unseat the Liberals. Locally, the Liberals have won the last two elections because the right-wing vote was split between Conservatives and Reformers. Many are anxious not to see it happen again.
It will come down to who become the new leader of the Canadian Alliance. If Stockwell Day or Tom Long wins, then expect a mass exodus from the Northumberland Tory ranks. If Manning wins, then the spark may die. The “Reformers in sheeps clothing” analogy will quickly be used by all wanting to disqualify the new party, including the Liberals.
There are also rumblings about a fall election, if Manning wins. The Liberals will be anxious to crush the Alliance before it gains any credibility. Prime Minister Jean Chretien already tried to frame an election platform during a recent visit to Europe. He will continue to political stumping looking to see the Canadian public’s reaction. He should be warned, without a strong, clearly defined issue, the Liberals stand a chance of being thrashed. Just ask David Peterson, the former Liberal premier of Ontario, just how bad things get when you call an election for no apparent reason.
If nothing else is clear, certainly the future of local Tories is about to change. There cannot be any doubt about that fact. The right wing in the county wants to win an election. It will be interesting to see if they can muster the solidarity to find the solution.