Christine Elliott promised PCs unity, but refuses to unite behind Doug Ford
Elliott's dispute of leadership results takes spotlight away from Ford's victory
It was supposed to be a glorious moment for the Ontario PCs: revealing their new leader in an energy-filled ballroom, showcasing a rejuvenated, united party to a big TV audience, proving to voters that they are ready to win the election in June.
Instead, the Progressive Conservatives announced the winner in a small and drab meeting room, at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, with no music or bright lights, and only a handful of party members around to applaud Doug Ford's low-key victory speech.
Even that muted celebration is now being thrown into doubt. Christine Elliott is refusing to concede defeat.
Elliott pitched herself to the Ontario PC faithful as the candidate who would best unite the party. But as Saturday turned into Sunday, she issued a written statement that said absolutely nothing about party unity. She pointedly did not congratulate Ford, and continued to dispute the result.
"This evening our campaign was made aware of serious irregularities with respect to this leadership race," said Elliott in the statement.
"Thousands of members have been assigned to incorrect ridings," she continued. "In a race this close, largely determined by geography, someone needs to stand up for these members." Elliott said she intends "to investigate the extent of this discrepancy."
Party officials have already looked into the discrepancy and rejected Elliott's appeal.
"The issue was extensively investigated by the chief electoral officer and the election team," said Hartley Lefton, chair of the committee that organized the leadership vote, late Saturday night. "The conclusion of the electoral officer was that the identified issue would not statistically lead to a change in the outcome."
So, now what?
If Elliott chooses to continue to dispute the result, her only recourse is to go to court. (The decision of the party appeals board that dismissed her challenge is final.)
It opens up the spectre of even more turmoil for a party that has endured plenty in the mere six weeks since Patrick Brown resigned as leader, following allegations of sexual misconduct.
- A battle royale ensued over whether even to have a leadership race, or just let interim leader Vic Fedeli carry the banner into the election.
- Ford stirred the pot by announcing he was seeking the leadership, a pre-emptive strike before a leadership race was in the works.
- Brown launched an attempt to reclaim his reputation, claiming inconsistencies in the stories of the women who accused him of sexual impropriety. He clawed his way into the leadership race to replace himself, then dropped out.
- Campaigns said hundreds (if not thousands) of party members failed to get the paperwork in the mail that they needed to vote online. A court case seeking an extension of the race was rejected the night before the winner was to be announced.
All the while Ontario crept closer to an election campaign. The governing Liberals and the NDP have been busily working away preparing their campaigns while the PCs were embroiled in the kind of nasty internal battle that can only happen when a party is so close to winning power it can taste it.
That battle is still not over, pending Elliott's next move. Her senior campaign officials are not ruling out taking it to court.
Saturday night clearly did not project the image the PC party wanted to offer Ontario. People on Ford's campaign tell me they believe Elliott's questioning of the results for hours and hours robbed him of that special moment in the spotlight of being crowned party leader in front of a packed room of supporters.
It is hard to see how Elliott can now reverse course, offer Ford her wholehearted support and persuade Ontarians that the party is not deeply riven with bad blood.
At several points during the wild roller-coaster ride that this leadership race has been, my colleagues at Queen's Park and I have asked one another: "Could this possibly have any more twists and turns?" The answer, it seems, is yes.