Tories prepare for Williams-less tribute

Newfoundland and Labrador's Tories were gathering in St. John's for a celebration that will be missing the man the event was intended to honour.
Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams abruptly cancelled participation in his own tribute dinner. (CBC )

Newfoundland and Labrador's Tories were gathering in St. John's on Friday for a celebration that will be missing the man the event was intended to honour.

Former premier Danny Williams abruptly pulled out of his own tribute dinner earlier this month, sparking rumours of a widening gap between the often-combative politicians and the Progressive Conservatives he used to govern, particularly Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

Williams has been reluctant to explain why he feels an impasse is growing with the PCs now running the government, all of whom used to report to him.

"I'm at a loss to understand. I have no explanations whatsoever," Williams said last Sunday, while appearing at the launch of a book about him.

Williams has also not discussed how most members of the provincial caucus have since thrown their support behind his arch-nemesis, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale has openly endorsed Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and his candidates, including former senator Fabian Manning. ((CBC))

Friday night's dinner is now rebranded as an event to "acknowledge and celebrate the achievements" of the party since 2003, when Williams led the party to victory.

It comes, moreover, after a week of political events that would have been difficult to imagine while Williams was in charge.

On Thursday evening, a smiling Dunderdale stood next to Harper in St. John's, after he promised a re-elected Tory government would help finance the Lower Churchill megaproject.

While Williams had been angling for federal support from the federal Conservatives, he was never one to applaud Harper, let alone enthusiastically. Leading up to the 2008 election, he repeatedly branded Harper as deceitful, untrustworthy and wanting to bring "the blue shaft" in contrast to the Green Shift the Liberals of the day were touting.

Williams has not commented on the emergence of several key members of his former government as rebranded members of the Harper team.

During the course of this week, four different former members of the provincial PC caucus — three of them former high-profile cabinet ministers — declared as Conservative candidates in the federal election.

It was nothing less than a sea change in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, and sets the stage for a reversal of political fortune from the 2008 shutout that Williams helped pull off through his politically lethal "anything but Conservative campaign."

For her part, Dunderdale has gone to lengths to say that Williams was universally admired and respected in the party, although she seemed exasperated earlier this week when asked to comment on the apparent rift with Williams.

"I understand transitions can be difficult sometimes," said Dunderdale, who more recently has fended off Opposition attacks that she has made secret concessions to win Harper's support for the $6.2-billion Lower Churchill project.

Williams, meanwhile, said "little things" have arisen. As an example, he said, "they don't want me to have the cell numbers of cabinet ministers. I mean, I can't explain that."

Dunderdale's tart response was: "Cellphone numbers for most of us haven't changed in eight years."

Williams has said there will be a "proper" tribute to him, in which he can meet and thank the volunteers who supported him. No indications have been made of when such an event will be held.

Several cabinet ministers who spoke with CBC News this week stressed there is no permanent rift between Williams and the party.

"Everyone has their disagreements sometimes, but we're still one happy party," Tourism Minister Terry French said this week.