The story of the 2014 provincial Conservative Party leadership contest is a study in politics on its most basic level.
It is a story of those with influence and of those who have less of it or none at all.
It is a story of how politics actually works inside the Conservative Party, instead of how we imagine it.
It is a fascinating story.
The Support of the Right People
“I want to be in this race,” Shawn Skinner told the Telegram’s James MacLeod on February 17, “but I’m only going into it if I have the support of the people.”
That was roughly a week after Danny Williams publicly attacked Bill Barry as an unacceptable candidate and Frank Coleman’s name surfaced - within 24 hours of Williams’ comments - as a candidate. It’s also a handful days after Des Sullivan connected Williams and his political associates inside the Conservative Party to the candidacy of a man few in the province outside Corner brook knew anything about and fewer still knew had such a deep interest in public life as to want to be Premier.
Less than a month after Skinner’s interview with McLeod, the former natural resources minister was officially out of the race. Truth is Skinner was never in it, but it is interesting to hear what he told CBC’s David Cochrane in an interview that aired on March 15.
Just to keep the timelines clear, that’s the day after nominations for the Conservative leadership closed. Frank Coleman confirmed his candidacy a bit more than 12 hours before the deadline and within 30 minutes - in the middle of the night, mind you - both Skinner and municipal affairs minister Steve Kent confirmed they weren’t running.
Skinner told Cochrane that he ran into Coleman’s name as soon as he started making calls about his own candidacy. As time went on, Skinner said, he ran into more and more people among the ex-officio delegates to the upcoming convention were already committed to Coleman.
“I would have liked if people had said ‘I am going to wait until people are in and we’ll hear what they have to say’ and give us [candidates] an opportunity to do it,” Skinner told Cochrane, “but, at the end of the day, I wasn’t disappointed [they didn’t do that]. I understood the rules of the game. ”
The most Skinner would say about his own decision to stay out of the race was that he did not feel he could win. When asked about Bill Barry, though, Skinner noted that with most or all the ex-officio delegates already locked up for Coleman, Barry would need to win 80% of the elected delegates to stand a shot at the leadership. Clearly, Skinner felt that task was impossible.
If Skinner didn’t explain why he felt that way, Sullivan certainly did on February 14.
When you consider the numerical influence from District delegates, which might comprise up to three-quarters of the whole ‘electoral college’, you begin to assess the importance of the Caucus’ collective sway.
Sitting Members are not only influential, in their own right; they are the ones most capable of organizing delegate elections at the local level.
In a nutshell, the organizational apparatus favors them. Only if the Caucus’ loyalties are severely fractured can Ridings, which have no sitting Tory Member, really count. In such a circumstance, Frank Coleman would not be courted at all.
Frank Coleman has the Caucus united around him. The Race is over. [capitalization and spelling as in the original]
What’s more interesting about Shawn Skinner’s interview with Cochrane is not what he said. It’s what he didn’t say. Indeed, no one on On Point this weekend talked about it, including panellist Stephen Dinn, Danny Williams’ former deputy chief of staff.
The way everyone was talking, Coleman’s name arrived on the scene, circulated, and attracted nearly unanimous support spontaneously. It was magic. No one campaigned on his behalf. No one inside the Conservative Party appeared to be involved at all.
When Cochrane asked about Danny Williams’ involvement, Skinner said he didn’t know if Williams was involved or not. Skinner said he had not heard anyone say that he could not support Skinner because Danny was supporting Coleman. Skinner acknowledged he’d spoken to Williams a number of times.
What’s noticeable at that point in hi comments is that Skinner didn’t say – and Cochrane didn’t ask – if Skinner had discussed the leadership with one of the most influential Conservatives in the province. Others have. Why not Skinner, apparently?
How very odd indeed.
The Real Race is over
What’s happening in 2014 is essentially what happened in 2010. People inside the party – Sullivan identifies Williams and his associates – organized support in caucus and the provincial party officials for a particular candidate. They made the selection quickly, behind the scenes, with the effect - if not the purpose - of cutting off any alternatives.
What Skinner says happened to him over the past month is exactly what happened to others in 2010 who – as conveyed to your humble e-scribbler by Conservatives at the time – tried to gather support for their own candidacy only to encounter an organized campaign to support Kathy Dunderdale as leader. This happened within a week or two of Williams’ departure.
In 2010, the concern was supposedly about the need to avoid a divisive leadership fight. In 2014, the common message is that Frank Coleman is a party outsider who will, therefore, renew the party. The truth – if anyone actually would tell the whole story – is probably different for different people. It’s easy enough to figure out the reasons they are supporting the inside deal, though.
Above all, they know the rules of the game, a phrase Skinner himself used. The people inside the party know who has the real power and they know how the people in charge make decisions. It clearly isn’t the result of an open vote in which all comers fight fairly. That is, again, a point made clear by Skinner’s own example.
After that, people inside the party know the polls. They want to win again. Some have openly called for Danny Williams to come back. Knowing that Danny has blessed a particular candidate will be good enough for them.
That sort of political laziness shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is a party that isn’t full of people with leadership ambitions or skills. That much has been obvious by the lack of serious interest from anyone inside cabinet or caucus. Consider, as an example, the cabinet minister(s) David Cochrane mentioned on air who doubted their own ability to win the 2015 election as Premier.
It also isn’t a party where someone can improve his or her standing inside the caucus by adding strength to the party with a good leadership campaign. That used to be the case in the provincial Conservative Party before 2001, just as it has been in other parties locally and nationally. Everyone saw just that sort of dynamic in the provincial Liberal Party leadership campaign in 2013. The telling fact about the provincial Conservatives remains that none of the prospective candidates - like Skinner - would enter merely because they couldn’t win. That shows that the party establishment places no value at all on someone who can attract new supporters to the party and come in second. Skinner and his colleagues know the rules of the game.
Whatever the reason the insiders are going along with the Coleman candidacy, the key thing to notice is the repeating pattern. We are not talking about the imaginary leadership race that the media is reporting about and that the Conservative party establishment is talking up.
We are talking about the real Conservative party leadership race. That one is, by all honest and informed accounts, finished except for the show. Key people made choices quickly and privately, evidently and logically as a result of persuasion by several individuals organizing for Coleman. Everyone else is falling in line for various reasons. Just as the Conservatives shut down any challenge to their inside deal in 2010, so too have they set up things in 2014 so that no one can win except Frank Coleman. That isn’t an accident.
Skinner may be disappointed by this but notice that he won’t say so. That’s not surprising: Skinner hopes to run for the Conservatives again and as Sullivan noted in another post, Skinner’s tendency to speak frankly, even in pathetically meagre doses in the past, has already ticked off many of his former colleagues in a caucus that prizes conformity and deference to authority above all else. Again, though, notice that Skinner’s best option for his own political future was to stay out of this race in favour of the inside deal for Frank Coleman rather than run a campaign, raise new ideas, and bring new people to the party.
Apparently, provincial Conservatives don’t think renewal involves that sort of thing.
Thursday: The Outsider