By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Thursday, November 27, 2008
As John Tory edges closer to his self-imposed deadline to get back into the Ontario Legislature, his hold at the top of the Progressive Conservative Party has become more tenuous than ever.
Mr. Tory lost his seat when the party was routed in the 2007 general election, and he's been promising to get another one ever since. For months now, in the face of pestering from reporters, he has been saying he will divulge his "pathway" by Dec. 31.
Any such plan would involve persuading one of his 25-member caucus to resign. There have been constant rumours this fall about which Conservative MPP would move to greener pastures, but nothing ever happens and Mr. Tory is increasingly testy about it. "I continue to stand by that timetable and we'll notify you when I have something to notify you of," he said recently.
There's a growing sense in Conservative ranks - even among admirers - that the door to the legislature will remain closed to Mr. Tory and that it's time for him to consider stepping down from the leadership. Interviews this week with a number of MPPs and veteran party members suggest that the issue of whether Mr. Tory will return to the legislature has become a distraction and that, with frustration growing in party ranks, increasing numbers of Conservatives are giving their time and money to their federal cousins in Ottawa.
An official in a previous Conservative government said he was surrounded by former colleagues at a recent federal convention in Winnipeg. "They want to be politically active, but they don't have any desire to invest any time in the Ontario scene right now," he said.
There is no imminent rebellion - "I'm not a big believer in regicide," a former cabinet minister said - but Mr. Tory has been getting pressure from his closest advisers to acknowledge the situation and to make succession plans. One loyalist described the party as in a "state of suspension," while another said "we're waiting for the vision" for the 2011 general election campaign.
It's not clear, beyond anecdotal evidence, how much the party has been affected by the drawn-out saga of Mr. Tory's postelection leadership.
John Capobianco, a Tory supporter, acknowledged that "time is of the essence" but argued that rank-and-file Conservatives "don't even know that John Tory doesn't have a seat in the House." He said the leader remains popular among Conservatives who value his business background in dealing with economic issues. Former party president Rueben Devlin said, however, that he is constantly getting calls from people saying, "We need to do something about this."
Mr. Tory was opposed by 33.1 per cent of delegates at a leadership review last February and dithered for several hours about whether he had enough of a mandate before saying he would stay on.
That was likely his high-water mark of support. Some party members say that indecision, coupled with his decision to set a date for a return to the legislature without a follow-through plan, led some who voted for him to question his political skills. "I would suggest that 33 per cent [opposition] is now more like 66 per cent," a former party official said.
"There are more people questioning his leadership skills."
One MPP said the caucus is "no more or no less fractious" than it was at the time of the leadership review, when it is believed five of them voted against Mr. Tory. But a veteran party member said it is "quite astonishing" that none of them could be persuaded to step aside to help their leader.
He said Mr. Tory is hoping against hope that something will open up, but "I can't see any chance that this logjam is going to break. It's just not going to happen."