B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins resigns

VANCOUVER – The leader of the B.C. Conservative Party has resigned a little more than two months after he and his team of candidates were shut out of the legislature during a disappointing provincial election.

John Cummins tendered his resignation to the party’s board Thursday evening, and while neither he nor the party offered an explanation, the veteran politician said he was leaving with his head held high.

“While the ultimate result of the election was not what we were looking for, I’m proud to have been able to lead a team of credible candidates who re-engaged voters in a way that allowed them to express themselves and cast a ballot for a common-sense alternative,” said Cummins in a statement.

Cummins said his party gave electors a true alternative and brought back thousands of British Columbians to the polls, increasing voter turnout.

He thanked the party’s board for its “outstanding support” and its membership for their encouragement “through all that has transpired.”

The resignation is effective immediately, and the party said its board will meet next week to finalize plans for a leadership race and convention.

Dan Brooks, who sits as a director at large on the party’s board, said earlier Thursday that Cummins made the decision after the Conservatives’ disastrous showing in the May election.

The announcement ends a day of speculation about Cummins’ political future. When asked earlier in the day if Cummins would resign Thursday night, party president Dan Denis responded “not necessarily” and noted Cummins had not yet tendered a resignation.

The Conservatives, considered a serious threat to the B.C. Liberals during two byelections last year, imploded before the provincial vote amid infighting and demands for Cummins’ resignation, which Cummins successfully deflected by winning a confidence vote.

Denis said Brooks is planning to run as a leadership candidate and “he’s made lots of noise about that.” Brooks confirmed he would run for Cummins’ job.

Doug Machan, who also sits as a director at large on the party’s executive, suggested no one should be surprised when Cummins leaves the post.

“I think everyone recognizes that John is a person who is 71 years of age. He is not going to be around for the next election.”

Cummins, a former Reform and Conservative MP, ran for the leadership of the B.C. Conservatives in 2011 and won by acclamation.

As dissatisfaction with the B.C. Liberals grew, Cummins tried to hive off the Liberals’ right-of-centre vote by offering a free-enterprise alternative.

Although the party had only two per cent of the popular vote in 2009, the Conservatives received 15 per cent of the vote in the Port Moody byelection and 25 per cent support in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection in 2012.

Afterwards, Premier Christy Clark stepped up her rhetoric in an all-out effort to ensure her coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives hung together.

But after the byelections, the Conservatives became mired in infighting with several party members calling for Cummins’ resignation.

The party’s lone MLA, disaffected former Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen, quit the party to sit as an independent shortly after Cummins won the confidence vote, ensuring Cummins led the party into the provincial election.

Cummins came a distant third in his own riding and the party managed to garner only 4.8 per cent of the popular vote.

MLA John Martin, who ran unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection in 2012 but was elected as a Liberal in May, said Cummins is a “great guy” who worked very hard, and he has nothing but respect for his former leader.

“But at the end of the day, the reality is, and we saw this in the byelection, is that a third party in this province, all they can do is ensure that the NDP win more seats.

“That’s what happened in the byelection, and thankfully, that didn’t take place in the general election.”

Martin said he hopes people who were discouraged by the BC Liberals will “come home” to the coalition just as people used to work together under Social Credit.

Denis said in a statement Cummins will be missed and his experience, dedication, and commitment to the Party have been unrivalled.

Cummins showed his true character last fall when some conservatives challenged his leadership.

“I know those times were personally difficult for John, but he showed immense strength of character in getting our Party through the storm,” said Denis.

“Our board is deeply appreciative of all the hard work that John did, and wish him well in his pending retirement.”

Hamish Telford, head of the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley, said with no seats in the legislature, the Conservatives became “not much more than a fringe party.”

“They have to either fold their tent and realize that the Liberals are the main party of the centre-right, the main conservative party going, or they try and rebuild.”

He said rebuilding will be an extraordinarily difficult task.

Telford said it’s difficult to run a political party with no seats in the legislature and a leader without name recognition and public stature, which are needed to bring in donations, help campaigns and mobilize and attract supporters.

“I’m not sure that the Conservatives can find another leader of John Cummins’ stature to pick up the reigns and carry the party forward.”

Telford said he doesn’t think Cummins’ resignation will have a dramatic effect on B.C. politics.