A tree stands alone
One by one, all the expected candidates for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party stepped aside, making way for what appears to be a calculated move by the party to show a united front in support of interim-Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
It’s a surprising turn of events and even more surprising, in some respects, than the announcement in November that Danny Williams would be leaving the premier’s office.
No matter how large the profile any given MHA may have had, it was always Danny’s show at the House of Assemby. With his long shadow making an exit, there were several perceived candidates to take over leadership of the party.
Dunderdale initially said she would not be looking to serve beyond a leadership convention, but after her announcement last week stating she will run, the province’s first female premier appears to be a lone wolf.
Carbonear-Harbour Grace MHA Jerome Kennedy was considered a logical successor to Williams from the moment he announced his intentions to run provincially. He was the minister in three of the most important portfolios - justice, finance, and health - and had a highly visible profile on the provincial scene.
However, he was not always shown in the most positive light. The relocation of the air ambulance service in St. Anthony displayed his combative side, well oiled through his years as a St. John’s defence lawyer. Then there was his showdown with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, which was testy at the best of times before a settlement was reached shortly after Dunderdale replaced Williams in the premier’s office.
Kennedy cited the strains being premier would place on his family in making his decision not to run, as did Minister of Education Darin King shortly thereafter. Finance minister Tom Marshall, another potential candidate, was soon to follow in announcing he would not run, and likewise with Steve Kent, MHA for the Mount Pearl North district.
There was a bit of a domino effect in play, with each announcement bookended by an endorsement of Dunderdale’s candidacy. Are there no leadership ambitions within the PC caucus beyond Dunderdale? One can only speculate on that matter, but the lack of interest shown thus far is surprising.
One likely reason for the lack of candidates is the party’s desire to show a united front in the next provincial election, scheduled for this fall. A leadership convention pitting ministers against one another could create divisions within the party and leave an opening for the opposition.
Certainly, one only has to look back to the 2001 Liberal leadership convention, where Roger Grimes squeaked by John Efford, to see how a party can be hurt by such events. Efford left provincial politics, as did fellow leadership candidate Paul Dicks, who placed his support behind Efford for the second ballot. Williams defeated the Liberals two years later, ending 14 years of Liberal-led government.
The Liberals winning this year feels like a stretch, but the provincial Conservatives have shown themselves to be a savy bunch over the last seven years. Let’s see how that plays out in what’s looking to be an historic election, likely to feature a slate of three female candidates, all party leaders vying for the premier’s chair.