Nfld. & Labrador

Ryan Cleary's defection reveals much about PCs and NDP

While prominent Tories are both celebrating and selling Ryan Cleary's political conversion, other PCs are far from happy, writes David Cochrane.

Prominent Tories are celebrating, and selling, Ryan Cleary's political conversion, but some PCs are not sure

Premier Paul Davis welcomed Ryan Cleary to his team as the governing Tories on Friday. (CBC)

In the hours after we confirmed that Ryan Cleary was, in fact, defecting to the Progressive Conservatives I received a blunt message from a lifelong Tory.

"Please shoot me," it read.

While Premier Paul Davis, the PC caucus and party staff are publicly celebrating the Cleary candidacy, that feeling is not universal. 

Ryan Cleary announces run as PC in the provincial election 15:08

Other Tories are privately admitting they had to swallow hard and clap as the recently defeated NDP MP announced he was seeking the PC nomination in Windsor Lake.

Party insiders are busy selling the upside of this move. They landed a big name and, the way these Tories see it, the defection sends a message that the NDP will be a non-factor in this election.

They hope the arrival of Cleary — who was formally named Monday as the party's candidate in Windsor Lake district —will spur other "on the fence" candidates to step forward and run.

After all, with the writ drop less than a week away, the PCs still need a dozen candidates.

Is Cleary really a Tory?

But several long time PCs told me privately they see the Cleary courtship as a desperation move by a down-in-the-polls government staring down a Nov. 30 date with the electorate. And no matter what happened on Friday afternoon in Clovelly, they just don't think of Cleary as a Tory.

As a journalist and columnist he was tough on the party. For 78 days in August, September and October, Cleary was asking NDP supporters for their money, time and labour as he sought re-election. 11 days after losing and expressing pride in being part of the NDP family, he was running for a completely different party.

Vince McMahon could not have scripted a better heel turn.

Former MP Ryan Cleary is leaving the NDP to run for the provincial Progressive Conservatives in the Nov. 30 election. (CBC)

That sudden departure from the NDP — and the vitriolic response from New Democrats — reveals two clear facts: Cleary was never really a New Democrat, and many of the party's power brokers never really accepted him as one.

It was a relationship of political co-dependency.

Hardly standard NDP orthodoxy

Cleary's politics could hardly be seen as aligning with standard NDP orthodoxy. He is relentlessly focused on the fishery and presents himself as a latter day Newfoundland Nationalist. His old newspaper column was dubbed "The Fighting Newfoundlander." His new Twitter handle is @windsorswarrior.

Above all, Cleary presents himself as a fighter, intent on settling the province's historic grievances. He's now content to try that as a Progressive Conservative.

And while Cleary was popular with segments of the NDP, his supporters say he never had a good relationship with the local power brokers.

Many of them are Lorraine Michael loyalists who believe (even in the absence of proof) that Cleary played a role in the now infamous caucus letter that nearly tore the party apart.

Seamus O'Regan upset New Democrat Ryan Cleary on Oct. 19 to win the riding of St. John's South -Mount Pearl for the federal Liberals. (Geoff Bartlett/CBC)

The public commentary in the hours after Cleary's defection reveals those internal fractures.

Former NDP candidate Peg Norman, who stepped aside to let Cleary run in 2008, wrote that "This move is clearly an indictment of Ryan's dishonesty and disloyalty. " But what was more revealing was Norman's comment that "In my circle, he was often a hard sell."

Despite three elections as a New Democratic candidate -- and one term as an MP -- Cleary was never seen as a good fit within his own party.

Treachery and opportunism

And now the New Democrats — who happily welcomed former Liberal George Murphy into their fold and have former Quebec Liberal Tom Mulcair as their national leader — have accused Cleary of various forms of treachery and treason for switching parties. Their anger is understandable. But the one claim that falls short is when they accuse Cleary of opportunism.

Liberal Cathy Bennett has been campaigning in the Windsor Lake district since May. (CBC)

Calling Cleary an opportunist for running for the PCs against the supremely organized Cathy Bennett is like accusing a Leafs fan of  "jumping on the bandwagon."

Windsors Warrior is in tough. The polls suggest Cleary is headed for his second electoral defeat in as many months.

It will take a massive effort to defeat Bennett, especially with a candidate who has just alienated a large percentage of his recent volunteer base, running in a provincial district that has no overlap with his past federal riding.

But Cleary has never suffered from a deficit of confidence in his own judgement and his own ability.

And that was on full display Friday when he became the newest and most controversial member of Team Davis.

About the Author

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

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