08/01/2012 12:25 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT

From afternoon cocktails to seat of power? A short history of new Legault party

MONTREAL - Quebec's newest political party began as an informal conversation over cocktails at the Montreal mansion of a dejected sovereigntist.

It was a Saturday afternoon in fall 2010 and Francois Legault, a onetime Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, had assembled some prominent intellectuals, politicians and businessmen.

Legault wanted to talk about forging a third way in Quebec politics — forming a party that wasn't separatist, wasn't federalist, but would focus on the province's finances.

When his idea became a reality 14 months later in a new party called Coalition avenir Quebec (Coalition for Quebec's Future), polls suggested Legault would glide to a legislative majority.

But now, heading into its first election campaign, the Coalition's own future is uncertain ahead of the Sept. 4 vote.

It has been a bumpy, winding path for Legault's political project since that autumn get-together.

At first, the steps were tentative. Legault initially declared the Coalition a movement — not a party — and many of those who shared in the cocktails ultimately failed to join.

That deprived Legault of some talent on the multi-partisan all-star team he initially hoped to assemble. He did manage, on the eve of the election, to attract some well-known personalities including the head of Quebec's association of specialist doctors, Gaetan Barrette.

Another major snag was the nagging questions about the sovereignty issue: How can you create a party where federalists and sovereigntists co-exist? How can you pretend the issue doesn't exist?

Legault, after all, had been no mere fellow-traveller within the sovereignty movement. He was a prominent member of the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry.

"In my team, he was perhaps the most ardent independantiste," Landry told The Canadian Press.

The former premier added it was Legault who insisted in 2005 that the PQ draw up a hypothetical budget of an independent Quebec.

"He proved that independence would bring us billions of dollars," Landry said. "And now a couple of years later he says we have to solve our economic problems before independence. How can you reconcile those two attitudes?"

But Legault has attempted to brush aside such awkward questions by stressing that he only ever saw independence as a means to make Quebec more prosperous.

He now proposes reviving the province's economic fortunes through bureaucratic reforms, such as abolishing school boards.

It is not quite the right-wing agenda that his critics on the left accuse him of; Legault, after all, favours a more active government role in protecting Quebec businesses from takeovers. But his message does appeal to a common sentiment that the state has grown too unwieldy and could use a trim in Quebec.

In the fall of 2011 he took that message on the road. His pragmatic, managerial approach to Quebec's political problems seemed to strike a chord.

He was soon filling bingo halls and hotel ballrooms across the province.

Riding the success of these meetings, Legault converted his "movement" into an official political party in November, with polls suggesting the premiership was his for the taking.

The momentum allowed the upstart Coalition to swallow the Action democratique du Quebec, a right-of-centre party that had been on life support since the 2008 election.

It also drew three disgruntled PQ members, giving the Coalition a nine-seat toehold in the provincial legislature.

"In joining Francois Legault, I'm also joining the only nationalist leader who can beat (Premier) Jean Charest in the next election," said Francois Rebello when he left the PQ in January.

"It's very important for me that, as nationalists, we unite behind Francois Legault."

But with the increased stature came increased scrutiny, and under the spotlight the Coalition lost some of its appeal to Quebec voters.

Legault's party has been in a downward spiral in recent polls, having slipped from first, to second, and now to third.

If this decline persists to election day, Legault's political experiment will be in peril. It would not, however, be his first public fumbling of a golden opportunity.

After Bouchard stepped down as premier in 2001, Legault, along with Landry and Pauline Marois, were among the three leading candidates to replace him.

While Legault had the backing of a group of young party members, he opted to throw his support behind Marois.

But his support lasted little more than a day. Legault quickly reversed course and announced he was getting behind Landry instead, effectively ending the race.

An embarrassed Legault was forced to atone publicly for his flip-flopping.

"Certain blunders were committed... I admit I could have done the thing differently," he said at the time.

"Politics is not easy."

Up until that point, Legault might have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. He was a star recruit for the PQ in 1998 and was named to cabinet even before being elected.

Legault had spent the previous decade at the helm of Air Transat, a discount carrier he helped found with a $50,000 loan.

The company expanded rapidly, and by the time Legault sold his stake in 1997 it had 4,000 employees and sales of more than $1 billion.

It was an impressive rise for someone who describes his roots as "modest"; Legault's father was a post-office worker as the family lived on the western tip of Montreal.

His entrepreneurial skills appealed to a PQ that was desperate to burnish its business credentials after the 1995 referendum.

Those who've worked with Legault say he took an accountant's approach to his ministerial portfolios, stressing efficiency and accountability.

He overhauled the province's report-card system as education minister and implemented hospital performance evaluations as health minister.

But despite his reputation as a bean-counter, he maintained an independent streak — one that rankled some of his colleagues, not to mention his bosses.

"There were solidarity problems," Landry said.

"In Lucien Bouchard's time, and at the beginning of my mandate which followed, he would contradict the government's positions."

Landry also felt that Legault's supporters actively sought to undermine his leadership.

"Rebello worked against me full time for two years," he said.

With Legault now in charge of his own political formation, he too must struggle with discipline within his caucus.

It is a task made all the more difficult given his party has become a shelter for all manner of political wanderers.

The Coalition's paid staff include federal Liberals and ex-provincial Liberals. He and some of his caucus are avowed sovereigntists and former Pequistes. Then there are the ADQ-style autonomists.

Life together has not always been easy for this modern political family.

Legault was forced to tell his caucus "to keep quiet" after a public spat erupted between a former PQ member and a former ADQ member over party policies.

The incident was chalked up to the growing pains of a young party with a diverse constituency.

It is the next rite of passage, with the Sept. 4 election, that will determine whether Legault's new party reaches adolescence.