Interim Conservative leader Ambrose begins farewell to political life

When interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose began using the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, the pictures she posted were all in black and white.

'Despite a heavy workload, Rona always retained her warm and charming manner,' Stephen Harper says

Conservative Interim leader Rona Ambrose speaks in Ottawa on Tuesday May 16, 2017. The longtime MP, who has led the Conservatives since they formed Opposition in 2015, will resign her seat in the House of Commons this summer. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

When interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose began using the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, the pictures she posted were all in black and white.

She opened the account just days after being elected the party's temporary boss, and the reflective tone of the photos matched the mood of the party: 99 MPs bruised and demoralized by an election defeat that saw Conservatives wiped off the electoral map in Atlantic Canada and pushed to the margins of Canada's urban centres.

Seven months later, the first colour photograph emerged: Ambrose, on stage at the party's annual convention in Vancouver, with the caption "So. Much. Energy. #LookForward."

Ambrose, it turns out, is now the one looking forward, announcing Tuesday she will resign her seat in the House of Commons when MPs break for summer, in preparation for a new life in the private sector.

She'll leave politics credited with injecting energy and colour into the Conservative party — something it badly needed in the wake of its 2015 election defeat.

One sign of her success? Money. While in the middle of a leadership race that usually drains funds from party coffers, the Tories raked in $5.3 million in the first three months of 2017, nearly twice as much as the governing Liberals — and not including the $4.6 million being raised by the leadership candidates now vying for the permanent job.

Party members choose a new leader on May 27.

'Nobody walks on water' 

"Nobody walks on water to get to the party leadership," Ambrose told a crowd of MPs and political watchers over breakfast at Ottawa's storied Chateau Laurier hotel. "Whichever woman or man who wins this job will undoubtedly spend time learning, and listening and working. I did it, Stephen Harper did it and so did our predecessors."

That her last speech was a breakfast one was fitting; one of the regular outreach activities Ambrose took on while living in the Opposition leader's residence Stornoway was hosting breakfasts for MPs to give them a chance for more informal conversations about their concerns, what was on the minds of their constituents and just life in general.

She was often joined by her partner, J.P. Veitch, who became known for wearing a T-shirt reading "Stornoway Pool Boy" to get a laugh out of family and friends.

Together, both sought to make Stornoway an open and accessible venue for conservatives, a reflection of Ambrose's chief focus of putting a new face on the Conservative party as a whole.

"Canadians asked us to change our tone and we listened," she said. "... We presented a fresh face to Canadians who now see a smart team that is a very real alternative."

More women in leadership roles

Some of the work involved in presenting that fresh face was elevating more women into leadership positions in the Conservative shadow cabinet.

One of the early ones was Lisa Raitt, who was appointed to the high-profile position of finance critic before she stepped down to seek the permanent leadership.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Raitt credited Ambrose's work, but warned Canadians not to expect a similar approach in the House of Commons once the party chooses a new leader.

Ambrose and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have engaged in two years of "nicey-nice" in the House of Commons, with Trudeau rarely attacking Ambrose directly, she noted.

"Rona is nice," Raitt said. "I'm not nice."

Ambrose has also managed to keep caucus relatively in sync despite the potential for the leadership race to drive wedges between rival camps of candidates and their supporters. Whether that unity will persist remains to be seen.

Ambrose will stay on to help manage the transition before making her way into the private sector, which will include taking up a position as a visiting fellow at the Canada Institute of the Wilson Center, a Washington-based public policy think tank.

In a statement, the institute said her job will be to bring together Canada and U.S. officials with a focus on exploring issues key to the North American economy.

Served in various ministries

Ambrose was first elected in an Edmonton-area riding in 2004, and when the Conservatives formed a minority government in 2006, Ambrose was appointed as environment minister.

She was shuffled out after a tumultuous year in the portfolio but went on later to serve variously as minister of labour, public works and health.

"Despite a heavy workload, Rona always retained her warm and charming manner and down-to-earth Alberta humour," former leader and prime minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.

"Rona's highly capable leadership of the Conservative team has set a high bar for those who will follow."