Conservatives cool their heels, eye 2017 leadership vote

Despite a weary caucus, expect leadership interests to play out over the year to come, starting with the return of the House this week

Photograph by Blair Gable

Photograph by Blair Gable

OTTAWA — Familiar, experienced Conservatives will take their places on the opposition benches this week in the Commons, but behind them is a party that is exhausted, in organizational limbo, and only slowly beginning to plan for a leadership race.

A consensus has begun to emerge inside the caucus that the party should take time to regroup and put off a leadership vote until early 2017. Recent signals that Ontario MP Kellie Leitch was on the verge of announcing her candidacy went over poorly among weary colleagues and party members, insiders say.

“People are just tired and nobody wants it to start now,” said one longtime Conservative activist who has ties to a potential contestant but was not authorized to speak publicly.

That’s not to say that leadership interests won’t play out over the year to come.

The party has decided to proceed with its regular convention this May in Vancouver and the principal task there will be to elect new party officials, including a president.

It will also be the first Conservative convention since its inaugural policy gathering in 2005 where Stephen Harper and his team will not be pulling the levers — a power vacuum the ambitious will look to fill.

The convention and its internal elections have the potential to become a surrogate fight between contestants for control of the party, or at the very least, a showcase for them.

“It will be the battle of the hospitality suites,” said one Ontario Conservative who requested anonymity due to the early stage of the process.

The party’s current national council meets this week to decide the membership of the all-important leadership organizing committee, which will set the rules for the race. Currently, only the party president, vice-president and secretary sit on the committee and it needs to be expanded.

Committee members are supposed to be neutral, but there will be scrutiny of who is appointed and any perceived loyalties they might have. Former Harper aide Tom Flanagan has chronicled the battles the campaign waged with the inaugural leadership committee during the 2004 race, on everything from levies on donations to the window of time for voting. Flanagan wrote that draft rules “reinforced our suspicion that the 1/8committee 3/8 was being influenced by advisers hostile to Harper.”

The Conservative apparatus will also need to deal with the sticky issue of post-election debt.

Although Elections Canada will be sending millions of dollars in rebates to parties for money spent during the election, raising funds after a loss and under an interim leader is not easy.

Meanwhile, Rona Ambrose has the task of having to rebuild from scratch a leader’s office that was virtually deserted after the federal election as the people around Harper scattered.

Veteran Parliament Hill hand Garry Keller was appointed her chief of staff and Ambrose has also selected a shadow cabinet with ample experience in the Commons, including potential leadership candidates such as Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel.

Still, many Conservative staffers have no experience in opposition, and they will have to get used to doing their own research on policy, writing speeches for the Commons and digging up dirt on the government — often by using the access to information system that they often tried to hobble while in power.

Former cabinet minister Chuck Strahl, who left federal politics in 2011, has been recruited to help train rookie MPs.

Ambrose’s first hurdle, winning the interim leadership, may turn out to the easiest part.

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