Thomas Mulcair’s historical challenge


Whatever the impact of the attack ads run against him, one historical note on the challenge facing Thomas Mulcair. He will be attempting in 2015 to do something that most leaders of the opposition fail to do: lead their parties to a general election victory on their first try.

By my count, between 1921 and 2011, 15 opposition leaders* who had not previously been prime minister led their parties into elections. Ten of those leaders failed to lead their parties to government on that first try: Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion, Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day, Preston Manning, Robert Stanfield, Lester B. Pearson, George Drew, John Bracken and Robert Manion. Only two of those ten went on to become prime minister after losing the first time: Messrs Harper and Pearson.

On the other hand, the five who won were Jean Chretien (1993), Brian Mulroney (1984), Joe Clark (1979), John Diefenbaker (1957) and Mackenzie King (1921) and all of those five defeated governments that had been in power for at least two terms.

When Mr. Chretien become prime minister, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power for nine years. When Mr. Mulroney became prime minister, the Liberals had been in power for 20 of the previous 21 years and won six of the previous seven elections. When Mr. Clark became prime minister, the Liberals had been in power for 16 years covering five elections. When Mr. Diefenbaker became prime minister, the Liberals had been in power for 22 years covering five elections. When Mr. King became prime minister, the Conservatives (on their own and then as a coalition) had been in power for 10 years covering two elections.

When Mr. Mulcair faces the Conservatives in 2015, the Conservatives will be at the end of their third mandate and been in power for nine years.

*Preston Manning was not technically the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in 1997. Officially that title belonged to Gilles Duceppe, but the Bloc Quebecois had no chance of forming government and at dissolution the Bloc and Reform Party had the same number of seats.


Thomas Mulcair’s historical challenge

  1. Manning was Opp leader in 1997, but not in 1993.

  2. Mulclair’s challenge is even more difficult that the raw numbers would suggest. Take the 5 opposition leaders who became PM on their first go. Jean Chretien went up against another first-time (but far less experienced) leader in Kim Campbell (and had the benefit of the split on the right). Bryan Mulroney went up against a first time leader in John Turner (and had the benefit of Trudeau’s destroying the Liberals in Quebec). Assuming Harper sticks around, Mulclair won’t have that advantage.
    Clark and Diefenbaker became PMs on their first go, true, but only formed minority governments, while McKenzie King first became PM with the thinnest majority government in history.
    All and all, PM isn’t a great gig for newbies. You see the same trend provincially, think of the long-line of first-time losers in Ontario (Hudak, Tory, Eves, McGuinty, McCleod, Harris, Grossman – that gets you back to ’85 when all three parties had new leaders). Mind you, the “losers” who managed to get a second shot (Harris, McGuinty) didn’t do too badly. It’s a testament to the value of experience in politics.