Calgary Herald

UNITY MASKS TORY DIVISION

Morton’s exit launches most bizarre leadership race in Tory history.

- D ON BRAID DON BRAID’S COLUMN APPEARS REGULARLY IN THE HERALD. DBRAID@CALGARYHER­ALD.COM

Usually the site of sleepy Tory caucus meetings, the McDougall Centre is starting to look like a box of exploding cigars.

Two days after Premier Ed Stelmach said he’s quitting, Finance Minister Ted Morton said he’s quitting, too.

Up in the caucus room, Tory MLAs were supposed to be approving the budget Thursday. They didn’t get around to it.

Morton’s resignatio­n then produced the most bizarre leadership campaign launch in the history of the Tory regime.

After the premier and the minister met for two hours, Stelmach told reporters Morton is resigning, praised him lavishly as a team player and sent him out on his campaign.

Will any other candidates get this royal treatment? Not likely, unless they’re mini-Mortons who present a threat to caucus unity.

Odder still is the fact that Stelmach surely isn’t planning to keep his chair warm for Morton.

The premier will want his successor to be a northern progressiv­e (Doug Horner seems to be his man), not a southern fiscal hawk.

But there they were, professing unity over a budget they obviously don’t agree on.

Morton said there are often fierce arguments over budgets in caucus, but he will support this one, although he won’t be reading it.

That’s Morton’s public position. But an awkward truth lurks in the background.

Before Stelmach announced Tuesday he won’t run again, thus triggering a leadership melee, Morton was waiting for the premier in Calgary with a letter in hand.

He was going to resign finance on principle, saying he couldn’t read a speech forecastin­g such huge deficits to the legislatur­e.

Since I reported this fact Wednesday, it has been muddied without quite being denied. But it remains a fact.

Once Stelmach shocked Morton by resigning first, though, Morton’s camp had to regroup.

His resignatio­n on top of Stelmach’s would have thrown the government and caucus into chaos. He would have been seen as a diva and spoiler.

But Morton would still feel queasy reading that budget. And he wants to be premier. What to do?

During their meeting Thursday, Stelmach and Morton hit on the obvious out.

Morton doesn’t quit cabinet over the budget. He quits to run for Ed’s job, as Stelmach says all ministers must do if they plan to be premier. Forget that budget thing.

When Stelmach, Morton and new Finance Minister Lloyd Snelgrove appeared in caucus with this arrangemen­t, smiling in happy unity, there was apparently a good deal of relief.

On the cusp of this leadership race, which is sure to be divisive, the last thing MLAs need is a messy caucus blow-up.

To his credit, Stelmach in his fading days is striving to keep his caucus and party together, hoping the Tory big tent will never become a pup tent.

For his part, Morton has to know he can’t capture the leadership of this party as a doctrinair­e right-winger.

There are progressiv­es to win over too. They’re the majority in Stelmach’s caucus, and quite likely in what remains of the PC party.

As a result of these mind-twisting oddities, Morton now finds himself far up the flagpole, the only declared candidate, more famous than anybody likely to run, the obvious heir apparent to the premier’s office.

But then, so was Jim Dinning.

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