On October 25, 1993 I saw something that I thought I would never see.
It was election night in Canada, and I saw a government go down to defeat in, arguably, the most spectacular way that has ever occurred in a western Liberal democracy.
The Progressive Conservative Party, which had been an almost monopolistic force in Ottawa from Confederation to the First World War, that led in times of great challenge and adversity – the Depression of the 1930’s, the height of the Cold War in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and the end of the great superpower rivalry of the 1980’s – was relegated to just 2 seats in the House of Commons. The lone survivors were Elsie Wayne, the indomitable former Mayor of Saint John, New Brunswick, and Jean Charest, MP for Sherbrooke. I was a voting delegate at the Convention that made Kim Campbell party leader and, concurrently, Prime Minister. The abysmal election result deprived me of the schadenfreude of seeing the leadership candidate I supported (Charest) survive the onslaught.
That a loss occurred was not a surprise. There were many factors that led to the defeat – the performance of Campbell, the conduct of the campaign, the skilled campaigning of Jean Chretien’s Liberals, and the predictable voter fatigue that came from being in power for nearly a decade.
But any of those factors need not have been fatal in and of themselves. They would have punted the Tories to the opposition bench to be sure, but would never have been enough to bring about an electoral Armageddon.
The seeds of this defeat came from two things – a failure to address grievances in Quebec and Western Canada that had been laid open and festering during the government of the first Prime Minister Trudeau – and the sense that the PC’s had broken faith with their own members and supporters at the grassroots level. PC supporters in Quebec moved to the more nationalist (and separatist) Bloc Quebecois, while those in English speaking Canada (particularly in the West) gravitated to the newly formed Reform Party.
Notice I said ‘supporters’, not voters.
‘Supporters’ are almost always voters, but voters are not always ‘supporters.’ Voters are the ones who give you an endorsement through the act of marking a ballot. Supporters do that as well, but they also spend hours handing out pamphlets, putting up lawn signs, working phone banks, raising and giving money. They serve as your poll captains, your volunteer chairs, and your constituency executives. Losing voters means losing elections. Losing supporters means losing your party.
The consequence of the Canadian experience was a decade of internecine warfare on the centre-right, while the Liberals rode to victory in successive elections. During that time, the federal Progressive Conservatives limped along. They had Senators, deep roots in parts of Ontario and parts east, but had no presence in the House of Commons, no money and no credible presence from the Ontario-Manitoba border westward. The Reform Party had money and MP’s, but had hit a wall. East of that same provincial border, they could only manage 2-3 seats at a time. A further rebranding as the ‘Canadian Alliance’ provided only marginal relief in Ontario and the East.
In 2003, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives entered into a merger. The ‘Progressive’ was dropped, and the newly (re)established Conservative Party of Canada selected a new leader, Stephen Harper, and went to the polls. Their first effort resulted in a minority win for the Liberals, and the second effort resulted in a Conservative minority win. Liberal seats in Ontario that were a lock for a decade flipped to the Tories by significant margins. In the seats they managed to retain, the margins tightened further.
It was not an easy process. I was part of a constituency association board where there were just as many members who wanted to keep fighting the PC-Reform war as there were those who wanted to move forward. To this day, there are some people I know who never forgave me for declaring my desire for ending the conflict and building a bridge. Some of them left Conservative ranks and have never returned. In a political war, that is both regrettable and unavoidable.
The current situation with Brexit is analogous to the situation in Canada in the early 1990’s, and Theresa May is treading an eerily similar path to Kim Campbell. Dissention and dissatisfaction within the ranks of the Tory party membership could potentially inflict structural damage to the organisation – either by supporters mounting the equivalent of a strike and staying home, or by resolving to take their time, money, talent (and inside knowledge) and ply it elsewhere.
If Brexit is not delivered – either by delay or reversal – it could very well have the same impact on British politics as the failure of the 1992 Referendum on the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord and the factional splits within the ranks of Canada’s centre-right constituency. MPs could choose to quit the Whip and sit as their own caucus (like the Quebec Tories who formed the Bloc Quebecois). On the ground, activists could sit out an election cycle, or lend their talents to another party, or form a new one (much like Reform in the late 1980s and into the 1990s).
In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visits Ebenezer Scrooge and reveals his destiny, Scrooge says “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”
For Theresa May, Kim Campbell’s political fall is the cautionary Dickensian premonition of what lies ahead. How she, and those who support her, handle matters between now and March 29th will determine whether those ends will change.