There are two schools of thought about what sort of interim boss to install while a political party is holding a contest to select a new leader. One camp says pick the best available MP, in hopes of using the interregnum between real leaders to rebuild, score points in the House, and stoke party morale. The other option is to choose a respectable placeholder, likely an inoffensive elder statesman, and just hang in there.
One advantage of going the second route is that a low-key figure filling the gap poses no danger of outshining the candidates gunning for the real job. Rona Ambrose exemplifies the risk of going with a more formidable performer. During her run as Conservative interim leader, murmuring about how she would make a better choice than most, perhaps all, of the crowded field of contenders vying to succeed Stephen Harper was so constant it began to sound like white noise.
Ambrose announced today that she will quit federal politics altogether when Parliament breaks for the summer, a few weeks after Conservatives elect their new leader on May 27. Before a breakfast speech at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Tuesday morning, she worked the room, table-to-table, like a pro, then took to the podium to deliver polished, comfortably bilingual remarks in the style that has made her sound—hypothetically speaking—like such a safe alternative to the leadership aspirants on offer.
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Among the many Tories who say they would have backed her had she stood for the leadership is Manitoba MP Candice Bergen, Ambrose’s sidekick as Conservative House leader. Bergen stopped for a brief interview on her way out of the speech, and I asked if it wouldn’t have been better for the next Conservative leader to follow someone drabber. Just for example, I mentioned former Toronto MP Bill Graham’s 2006 stint, between Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion, as a Liberal interim choice who was widely respected, but hardly the type to spark if-only musings.
Bergen immediately countered by citing a more recent Liberal experience, the 2011-2013 space between Michael Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau, as a case study in how a more compelling temporary captain can prove a good pick. “Let’s go to when they had Bob Rae,” Bergen said. “He was a very good interim leader and a lot of [Liberals] said they wished they could keep him. Then they ended up putting in Justin Trudeau, who, at the time, many, including Conservatives, said, ‘Hmm, was that a good decision?’”
Of course, Trudeau worked out pretty well, and Bergen’s obvious point is that, even if the next Conservative leader starts out facing unfavourable comparisons with Ambrose, what really matters is how he or she settles into the spotlight. In her speech this morning, Ambrose tacitly urged the assembled Tory faithful to give the new leader time. “Let me just say one thing about this job,” she said. “Nobody walks on water to get to the party leadership. Whichever woman or man wins this job will undoubtedly spend time learning and listening and working. I did it and Stephen Harper did it and so did our predecessors.”
Along with that sensible plea for Tories to let the new leader adjust, Ambrose suggested the basic ingredients that bind the party are in place. “As Conservatives we’re uniting,” she said, “around the fundamental issues that define us: low taxes, safe communities and a Canada that isn’t afraid to stand up for its interests at home and abroad.”
But are such broad, bedrock convictions enough? After all, the leadership frontrunner, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, calls for a platform of tax and spending cuts for the 2019 election that goes far beyond those basics. As well, the leadership race has seen Kellie Leitch activate identity politics, and Michael Chong polarize party members over pricing carbon. There’s plenty to split over. And whoever wins must now reckon on running the show without being able to call on Ambrose’s reassuring voice and presence to help smooth the coming transition.