British Columbia·Analysis

Questions linger about B.C. Premier Christy Clark's future

Following a confidence vote, Christy Clark became the first B.C. premier to be defeated in the legislature, only to have her chief opponent be offered her job. Now, all eyes are on what Clark will do next.

Clark says she will stay on as Opposition leader, but for how long?

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark arrives at Government House to meet with Lt-Gov. Judith Guichon after her Liberal minority government was defeated on a confidence vote in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

It's the job Christy Clark never dreamed of — leader of the Official Opposition. But it's the job B.C.'s outgoing-premier is about to get.

Following a confidence vote last Thursday, Clark has become the first B.C. premier to be defeated in the legislature, only to have her chief opponent offered her job.

While Clark remains premier until NDP Leader John Horgan is officially sworn in the coming days, all eyes are now on what Clark will do next. 

"I intend to stay on," said Clark on June 8, suggesting she may take on the position of Opposition leader.

"Whatever job voters give me and the House gives me in this parliament, I will take."

But for how long?

When asked at the beginning of June whether she plans to lead the B.C. Liberals into the next election, Clark did not answer directly. Nor did she mention her future when addressing the media after the announcement of premier-designate John Horgan. 

Clark came into the May election with a solid majority, but was reduced to 43 seats, one short of having control of the 87-seat legislature . 

Many leaders have left politics in similar situations, including former prime minister Paul Martin. But so far, there have been no cracks exposed in the B.C. Liberal caucus. 

That could change.

The government's June 22 speech from the throne, which dramatically shifted the B.C. Liberals' policy approach, led to some frustration from party supporters.

Wide pendulum swing

The speech included promises such as adding 60,000 new child-care spaces and getting rid of tolls in Metro Vancouver bridges, something that would cost billions of dollars over the next few years and test the party's focus on fiscal prudence.

One of Clark's staunchest supporters, former health minister Terry Lake, questioned whether the "pendulum swing" was too wide. 

"While we are a coalition of conservatives and liberals in the B.C. Liberal Party, one thing we all agree on is to be fiscally responsible and not pass that onto future generations," said Lake.

"I do worry that some of the items in the throne speech would be difficult to manage in a year-over-year basis." 

Parties need to be ready 

But with the margins so tight in the B.C. Legislature, it could be an unwise time to think about replacing a leader. The Greens and NDP signed a four-year agreement. But with a 44-43 split, every vote will be close, and the government may not stay in place that long.

Because of that, the Liberals are best served with Clark ready to spring into an election any time.

Martyn Brown, onetime chief of staff to former premier Gordon Campbell, says the longer the NDP/Green alliance governs, the stronger the likelihood that Clark will be replaced. 

"I think it's pretty clear she does right now [have the support] and she intends to stay on. She'll be hoping for another election if the NDP and Greens can't make it work, and I think she's going to be disappointed on that front," said Brown.

Clark also has the advantage of no one publicly scrambling to take her job.

Justice Minister Andrew Wilkinson, Health Minister Mary Polak and Transportation Minister Todd Stone are three of Clark's frequent defenders and will be important players for the Liberals in opposition.

Lake is happily out of politics for now and has no intention of returning soon. Former finance minister Kevin Falcon, Clark's rival for the 2011 leadership of the party, has also indicated he is not interested in running. 

Outside of provincial politics, there are some intriguing options.

One is former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore, who is a senior business adviser at Dentons, an international law firm.

"I was in federal office for 15 years, five terms," Moore said, "I am enjoying the private sector and I am going to remain there." 

Tough transition to Opposition

But there are others who may take the leap from federal politics if the opportunity presents itself, including current MP and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.

Moore said the transition from a period of long-time governing to Opposition can be rocky. 

"When you transition over to Opposition there is a learning curve" added Moore. "Even the Liberal Party federally, after Stephen Harper became prime minister, it took them a while to become a good Opposition party."