No sign that Liberal knives are truly out for Kathleen Wynne

If there is a real movement among Ontario Liberals to push Kathleen Wynne out, so that someone else can lead the party into next year's election, I can't find it.

Wynne 'has really strong support' among MPPs and party members, says Deb Matthews

Kathleen Wynne has said repeatedly that she intends to stay on as premier and Ontario Liberal Party leader until the next election, in June 2018. (CBC News)

One of the questions I get asked most often these days by friends and acquaintances is whether Premier Kathleen Wynne is going to resign to give her Ontario Liberal Party a fighting chance in next year's election.

Rumours certainly abound that there is a concerted movement to push Wynne out.

The people involved (according to the whispers) range from ambitious cabinet ministers who want to be premier, to backbenchers worried about losing their seats, to grassroots Liberals who believe Wynne has irreversibly become a lightning rod for voter anger. 

But if there truly is a movement among Ontario Liberals to topple Wynne so that someone else can lead the party into the 2018 vote, I can't find it.

I've spoken to a range of people who you'd think would delight in seeing the back of Wynne: strong supporters of Sandra Pupatello, her chief rival in the last leadership race; longtime Liberal backroomers who've been frozen out by Wynne's inner circle; and senior officials whose greatest loyalty is to the party, not to Wynne.

Even given the opportunity to speak off the record, none of them purports to smell even a whiff of an imminent revolt. 

The strongest statement I could coax out of a senior Liberal (not a Wynne loyalist) is that some key activists in the party are giving her until summer to show signs of a turnaround in the polls.

Deputy Premier Deb Matthews (left) is one of Wynne's staunchest allies. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

"The knives are not out," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But these people are in the tool-shed and they're sharpening the knives. Whether they use them or not depends on where things go from here."

He said that Wynne would only step down if there is pressure from "a combination of caucus members and the party executive." He added that he sees no evidence of such pressure now. 

One of Wynne's staunchest allies, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, dismissed talk of dissension in the ranks.

"Kathleen Wynne has really strong support in our caucus, in our party membership," said Matthews in an interview. 

'Our best weapon'

Matthews is also co-chair of the Ontario Liberal re-election campaign and insisted that Wynne is the best person to lead the party into the 2018 vote "because she's smart, really hard working, cares deeply about issues that matter to people and gets the job done." 

Another senior party official — who also said he sees no sign of a desire to dump Wynne — called her "our best weapon."  

Here's something else that makes me skeptical there really is a movement to push Wynne out: the fact that the PCs are loudly insisting there is one.

Earlier this week, I received an email purporting to be from a group of Ontario Liberal Party members, past and present, calling for Wynne to resign. 

The message's credibility quickly crumbled upon closer inspection.

There was no name or contact number. Nobody responded to my reply asking for an interview. It contained numerous sloppy grammatical errors and typos, referred to Hydro One as "Ontario Hydro" and spelled St. Catharines wrong. 

But the final straw was the message's rant against Wynne's plan to cut hydro rates by a further 17 per cent.

The plan may indeed have some long-term negative consequences for the province, but in the short term, it can bring only political benefits for the Liberals. Knowing how intense the hydro price backlash has been, and how relieved the Liberals are that the plan could neutralize what was the hottest political issue in the province, I can't imagine any real party member would see the move as a reason to push Wynne out.

Too early for an obituary

Yes, the Liberals are jittery about polls putting them on average 14 points behind the Progressive Conservatives and putting Wynne's personal approval rating at near-record lows. 

But polls only indicate how voters feel right now. The election is 15 months away, an eternity in politics. The Liberals were sagging at similar points ahead of the elections in 2007, 2011 and 2014 and won them all.

It's also unclear that any other leader would be able to magically produce a surge in the polls. No matter who the premier is, the party will almost certainly have to battle against sentiment that it's "time for a change" after 14 years of Liberal governments. 

It's simply a little early to write Kathleen Wynne's political obituary just yet. But if you are a Liberal party member and you do want her gone, please do let me know that you're out there.

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark