The backroom boy is in. So is the dark horse. As expected, Hugh Segal, the consummate Tory fixer, announced his run for the federal party leadership last week, followed in short order by Brian Pallister, the former Manitoba cabinet minister. Now the wait is on for the safe-money candidate - former prime minister Joe Clark. While Clark has not yet formally declared his intention to return to active politics, he looked like a man on the campaign trail last Wednesday when he sat down for a private breakfast in the Parliament Hill cafeteria with 14 of the party's 19 MPs. That turnout is expected to convert into overwhelming caucus support if, as expected, Clark launches an official leadership bid within the next few weeks. "Clark," gushed rookie Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, recently touted as a leadership contender himself, "can take us to 24 Sussex."
The support from Conservative insiders that has made Clark the early favorite in the run-up to the fall vote is hardly Joe-mania. "He is very respected," allowed Paul Barnes, a Tory youth activist from Brison's home turf in Nova Scotia, "especially among my parents' generation." And there is Clark's image problem. Party loyalists pay homage to the way he rebounded from his disastrously short 259-day prime ministerial stint in 1979-1980 to achieve stature as a long-serving external affairs minister, constitutional affairs minister and Tory elder statesman. But even they cannot always muster much enthusiasm for a man indelibly marked by his failure two decades ago to maintain power.
However, as Clark's supporters are quick to point out, at least Canadians remember him. And for a party fighting for its very existence, Clark's may be the only marquee name in the race, giving him instant appeal. A poll conducted last month by Pollara Strategic Public Opinion and Market Research Inc., the federal Liberal pollster, reported that 45 per cent of Canadians would be more likely to vote for the Tories with Clark as leader, compared with just 18 per cent who would favor a Segal-led party (Pallister's name was not on the survey). Those numbers bolster the argument of some Tory insiders who say their party does not have time to build the credibility of a lesser-known leader. Fifth-place finishers in last June's general election, the Tories drew 13 per cent of respondents' support in a Gallup Poll released last month. Although that put them barely ahead of Reform (12 per cent), the Bloc Québécois (nine per cent) and the NDP (seven per cent), they remain well behind the Liberals' 58 per cent. "The caucus," said one senior Tory strategist, "is looking at Joe's proven experience, visibility and name recognition."
While Segal may lack Clark's profile, he is widely conceded to have a slicker, better-funded campaign machine - at least at the outset. And as a familiar TV political pundit, he is hardly an unknown. The trick will be to use that media savvy to create the very different aura that must surround a national leader. Making the transition from the back-rooms to the bright lights will not be easy. In a 30-year political career, Segal has worked for revered Tory figures like former Ontario premier Bill Davis and Robert Stanfield, leader of the federal party from 1967 to 1976. But he also served as Brian Mulroney's chief of staff for 20 months - an association that may haunt his campaign. His strategy for carving out a persona of his own is to position himself as the centrist choice - with policies favoring tax cuts and defence spending hikes that should put him slightly to the right of Clark, but just to the left of the more populist, right-leaning Pallister. "That's where the vast majority of Conservatives and Canadians are," Segal told Maclean's.
Segal, an avuncular 47-year-old who carries the sobriquet "Happy Warrior," talks like a man with the energy and patience to spend years restoring the once-proud party to its old status as a government-in-waiting - or even a government in fact. But that sort of staying power may not be what the party is looking for. Clark's appeal to some Tories is that he would bring guaranteed respectability in the next election - and then perhaps step aside so that a fresher face in the Conservative caucus could slip into the driver's seat. Whether Clark, who declined to talk to Maclean's, would be willing to take on the job with such limited aims is far from clear. Now 59, he may have ambitions that stop nowhere short of the Prime Minister's Office. But his friends wince at the prospect of another embarrassment for a man who has endured more than his share. "Maybe, maybe he can become leader of the opposition," said one worried friend. "Then they will have a leadership review and throw him out."
The most pressing issue for a new Tory leader: how to position the party to get the upper hand over Reform in the fight for the political right. Reform Leader Preston Manning has grabbed the initiative by announcing his plan to hold a "united alternative" assembly next fall to try to bring Canadian conservatives together. Segal bluntly dismisses the notion of a Reform-led alliance. "I think a growing number of Reformers understand they cannot form a government," he says. "I am encouraging them, whether they are for me or against me, to join the Conservative party." Clark has yet to make a definitive statement on the "unite the right" concept, but his Red Tory reputation and long-standing personal rivalry in Alberta with Manning seem to rule out his leading the Tories into any sort of merger.
Enter Pallister, 43, a six-foot, eight-inch former Brandon University basketball star and government services minister in Gary Filmon's provincial government. Pallister built his modest reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative largely by spearheading balanced-budget legislation in Manitoba that would dock the pay of cabinet ministers by 20 per cent if they failed to balance the books in any given year - a policy he proposes duplicating in Ottawa. That sort of populist bent makes him a natural magnet for conservative-minded western voters who supported Reform in 1993 and 1997. Even better, he combines that policy track record with classic Prairie roots: he grew up on a half-section mixed farm in rural Manitoba - near Portage la Prairie, where he still lives. Pallister has not risked spelling out an overt strategy for combining forces with Reform. Still, of the three candidates, he sounds the most willing to discuss that prospect. "The best unions or coalitions or marriages are mutually agreeable relationships for long-term benefit," Pallister told Maclean's last week. "That is what I would hope to establish, with the PC party as its base."
With a new leadership selection process in place, rank-and-file Tories are being courted as never before. On Oct. 24, all card-carrying Tories can vote in their constituencies. With each of the 301 ridings allocated 100 votes, the results will then be divided proportionately among the candidates. For instance, if Clark gets half the votes in a riding and Segal one-quarter, they will be awarded 50 votes and 25 votes, respectively, in the national tally. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent overall, a run-off vote will be held on Nov. 14. The voting system means that the leadership camps must try to reach and hold the loyalty of thousands of Tories across the country. "This is retail politics," says Segal. "It is not a tea party."
Venturing into these new uncharted waters has left even the most seasoned Tory campaigners hesitant to predict the outcome. For now, nothing - not even the list of candidates - seems certain. Some Tories think that at least one sitting MP should enter the race, if only to boost the profile of the largely unknown caucus (New Brunswick MP Jean Dubé says he has not ruled out a long-shot candidacy). But in last year's election, even the charismatic Jean Charest could not carry the party higher than fifth place in a fragmented House of Commons. If anything - with Reform on the offensive - the stakes may be higher now. The question is, would Clark's leadership represent the restoration of the best traditions of a historic party - or the last backward glance of a fading political force?
Maclean's June 22, 1998