Clark Preparing to Exit Politics

This time there will be no push. No false non-aggression pact like the one Brian MULRONEY made with him in the early 1980s while all the while scheming against him.

This time there will be no push. No false non-aggression pact like the one Brian Mulroney made with him in the early 1980s while all the while scheming against him. No orchestrated ganging up, as when pro-Mulroney forces denied him a face-saving endorsement from the party faithful at the 1983 Winnipeg leadership review. Instead, Joe Clark, the second-time Progressive Conservative leader, will choose the manner of his exit much like the NDP's Alexa McDonough, who in a dignified, professional manner two weeks ago made it clear she understood her time was up.

Last week, with the Liberals steeling themselves for open civil war, Tories were contemplating something they've seldom managed - an orderly succession. Party insiders say Clark, who has put his Ottawa home on sale, is close to deciding to step down, possibly before the Aug. 22-25 leadership review convention in Edmonton. "Obviously he's thinking about it," says Harvie Andre, a friend and former Tory cabinet colleague. "He has been for a long time, and the thinking has gotten more immediate."

On the personal front, party insiders say Clark, who turned 63 this month, first wanted to get past his daughter Catherine's June 8 wedding. Friends have also been reported raising money for a retirement fund and inquiring about teaching positions at prestigious U.S. universities. "He can't do that for himself," explained one. "He can't be seen using his current position to get another." Politically, Clark is weighing the pros and cons of stepping down before the leadership review or staying on for another six months, projecting an image of Tory stability as the turmoil over leadership and ethics engulfs the Liberals. Tories say they won't push - but some do want him to act quickly. "If he's going," said one party official, "I don't know why he would want to put himself through the leadership process."

Not that anyone expects a repeat of 1983. Two decades ago, the Tories were angry with Clark for carelessly losing his minority government in a 1979 budget vote, then going down to defeat in the subsequent election to a rejuvenated Pierre Trudeau. And disgruntled Conservatives had a ready alternative in Mulroney, who'd been courting Clark detractors for years. "I know of no organized effort to remove him this time," says Peter Van Loan, a former party president who left that post after being associated with a perceived attempt to oust the leader prior to the 2000 general election. What unrest there is, says Van Loan, is a smattering of grumbling over Clark's failure to take full advantage of internal strife inside the Canadian Alliance under Stockwell Day, which resulted in 13 Alliance MPs leaving the caucus and the eventual leadership victory of Stephen Harper.

Clark has of late appeared to be going through the motions. Last June, in an interview with Maclean's, he was buoyant, full of hopes and schemes and laying out his scenario for restoring the Tories to glory. He said his challenge was to convince Canadians they could again regard the Tories as the natural alternative to the Liberals, by performing well in the House of Commons - something even critics agree he's done - and drawing dissident Alliance MPs into an accommodation with his party. But that latter strategy collapsed in April, when the victorious Harper welcomed back 12 of the dissidents with open arms. "Realistically, he now realizes that to marshal the kind of effort necessary to form the government the next time just may not be possible," says Andre of Clark. "Frankly, he's looking a little tired too."

The question that remains is - can anyone do better? Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, often mentioned as a likely successor, calls Clark the "most stable and competent" national leader in the country. An Ipsos-Reid survey conducted in the first week of June gave Clark a 54 per cent approval rating, higher than Jean Chrétien's 46 per cent and Harper's 40 per cent. As a party, however, the Tories languish in the low teens in most polls, far behind the Liberals, and slightly behind the Alliance. "We're not getting any traction and we're not likely to get any without a change of leader," said one Tory insider.

Despite the low prospects for the party, some credible names are apparently ready to take a shot at the leadership. Hugh Segal is almost certain to try. The Montreal-based president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy and former Mulroney chief of staff finished second behind Clark in the 1998 leadership race and is convinced he can win the prize this time. Also said to be interested is John Tory, president and CEO of Rogers Cable Inc. and former Canadian Football League commissioner, who has served as Tory campaign manager in several federal elections. From the caucus, only MacKay, son of former Mulroney cabinet minister Elmer, is considered a serious contender. He's been grooming himself for the job since entering Parliament in 1997 and has been brushing up on his French, which he concedes is not yet ready for prime time. On everyone's wish list is Bernard Lord, the fluently bilingual New Brunswick premier who, surprisingly, won a sweeping victory three years ago in a province thought to have buried the provincial Tories.

Others in the party expect that a change in leadership will eventually result in a merger with the Alliance, thereby creating a broad centre-right party capable of threatening Liberal hegemony. Some believe Clark's departure would also heighten pressure on Chrétien to follow suit, because it would leave the Liberals as the only national party not to have changed leaders since the last election. With the Liberals renewed under a different leader, they say, Harper would be forced to acknowledge the futility of maintaining the schism between Canadian conservatives.

For Clark, the second parting will at best be bittersweet. In 1998, with the Tories down to 19 seats in the House, he returned after a five-year absence with a mission to save the party from oblivion - but also with a faint hope he could again become prime minister. But in the 2000 election, the Tories dropped to 12 seats - the minimum required to maintain party status in the House. Now, he will be going at a time when the Conservatives cannot be assured of their long-term survival. In the final analysis, Clark's most lasting impression may be made by the dignified manner in which he chooses to leave the leadership of his often fractious party - and not by what he leaves behind.

Maclean's June 24, 2002