Cochrane: PCs face tough slog after Frank Coleman

With another leadership race now looming, the governing Tories are entering the summer leaderless, grumbling and sliding in the polls, writes On Point host David Cochrane.
Frank Coleman, who was acclaimed in the last PC leadership contest, said Monday he no longer wanted to be premier. (CBC)

Frank Coleman was on his way to Bonavista when he got the phone call that effectively ended his political career. The premier-designate was headed to a series of events with Bonavista North MHA Eli Cross. 

This week on On Point

David Cochrane examines the state of the PC Party, airing Saturday at 6:30 p.m. NT

After taking the call, which sources say lasted about 15 minutes, he told his staff he had to return to Corner Brook immediately. 

Coleman cancelled all public events until he announced his withdrawal from the PC leadership on Monday.

Coleman hasn't publicly revealed the details of that call or his specific reason for quitting. He will only say it was a serious issue involving his immediate family. Staff members at the heart of his leadership campaign say they don't even know the details.

Behind the scenes, things were moving ahead as if Coleman was going to become premier on July 5 as planned. He had signed a long-term lease and furnished a condo in St. John's. His staff was putting out feelers to potential hires for the recently-gutted premier's office. 

On the very day Coleman announced he was stepping down, the PC convention committee was finalizing accommodations for his family. Despite his public struggles, Coleman's party and staff believed he was going through with it. His departure surprised them all.

It has also put the PC leadership into a tailspin and sent things back to square one. 

Now a familiar cast of characters — who either supported Coleman or thought they couldn't beat him — have to explain why they are suddenly the best choice to replace him. It takes an already strange leadership and makes it downright bizarre. 

The dog that caught the car 

It also reinforces the sense that the PC party is the dog that caught the car. In the winter, the party was united in its belief that Kathy Dunderdale had to resign for the good of the party. 

They started that process with no clear sense of where it would lead. 

Kathy Dunderdale announced her decision to resign as premier in January. She stepped down as an MHA a month later. (CBC )

Months later, the future is even murkier. In a province on a hiring spree, the one job they can't fill long-term is premier.

So Tom Marshall's retirement gets kicked down the road yet again as the Tories plan for life after Coleman. The optimistic mood that followed Dunderdale's departure has turned grim. One senior Tory organizer told me the best hope for the party now is to "find somebody sensible and hold on to what we can." 

With an election a year away, the Tories are already talking about saving the furniture.

There are also burgeoning internal problems. The purging of the premier's office has sown resentment in the ranks of some of the party's most loyal members. Long-serving staffers and party workers were abruptly shown the door as the party cleared the decks for Coleman's arrival. 

Internal factions and division

On the day of the firings, one long-time party worker took some of their personal items to their car. When this person went back to the office to get the rest, their security card had already been disabled. 

It's the sort of move that leads to internal factions and division. It takes strong leadership to move people past those grievances and that is in short supply in Tory ranks these days.

It's a problem of the party's own making. When Dunderdale quit, there was an expectation that a half dozen caucus members and a handful of outsiders would seek the top job. 

But then the caucus started dropping out one by one. They convinced themselves that a stale face could not win the next election and the need for an outsider became the party's new religion. 

There was still a lot of talk about the renewing powers of a competition. But as the now-aborted leadership race went along, it became increasingly clear that the caucus wanted Coleman — with the illusion of a contested convention. 

Some caucus members even threw their support behind Coleman without ever having met him. MHAs encouraged Bill Barry to seek the job even though they had no intention of supporting him. Barry saw the race for what it was and bolted.

A new cycle of speculation 

And now the talk of renewal and competition has started again, along with a new cycle of leadership speculation. But while the party speaks of an opportunity to get things right this time, the public perception is that it is a battle of the B Team. 

Tom Marshall will stay on as interim premier until the PC Party chooses a new leader. (CBC)
This is coupled with the imminent risk of the government losing another seat in the legislature. Joan Shea's resignation means the Tories will have to contest yet another byelection before their leadership question is settled. 

After losing Jerome Kennedy's seat and Dunderdale's seat to the Liberals in consecutive byelections, nobody would bet on the PCs holding Shea's district.

So the Tories enter the summer leaderless, grumbling and sliding in the polls. They've gone from premier, to interim premier, to premier designate, and now back to interim premier.

Meanwhile the Liberals steadily nominate their candidates for the next election in a series of contested nominations.

One party is creating the impression of an efficient red machine. The other of a big blue truck spinning its wheels in the mud.

About the Author

David Cochrane

CBC News

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.


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