VICTORIA - British Columbia's upstart Conservatives are facing a familiar political enemy — themselves — as they prepare for what could be their most important gathering in years.
The Conservatives, who have spent more than a year billing themselves as a credible free-enterprise choice to Premier Christy Clark's B.C. Liberals, are holding a party meeting Saturday in Langley that threatens to erupt into a nasty leadership feud.
Billed as a team-building, strategy-mapping session ahead of the spring provincial election, the party's annual general meeting could see current leader John Cummins lose his job and result in the launch of a leadership campaign.
Cummins, the former long-time federal Tory and Reform MP from Delta, says the Conservatives should unite under his leadership and set their sights on the Liberals and New Democrats rather than taking taking aim at themselves.
But in the days leading up to the Langley meeting, Cummins and his supporters have been releasing lists of party executives, riding presidents and Conservative women, calling them Friends of John Cummins.
Cummins admits the release of the friends lists is meant to counter emails sent to party members asking them to vote in favour of a leadership review.
"It's a spontaneous group of people," he said.
"They are simply responding to the call by certain members of the (Conservative Party) board for the review. It's just a minuscule minority and I'm quite confident that a call for a leadership review will be defeated."
Cummins appears to have enough confidence in the outcome of the weekend meeting to take a personal shot at John van Dongen, the only member of his Conservative Party with a seat in the legislature.
Van Dongen quit the Liberals earlier this year to join the Conservatives, but has stayed silent as the party squabbles over Cummins's leadership.
"It's unfortunate he's not been all that supportive at this point," said Cummins.
"What more can I say? He seems to have a bit of a problem with the leadership here at the Conservative Party, but then again he had problems with the leadership in the Liberal Party."
Former Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger has said van Dongen attempted to organize a caucus revolt against former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.
When van Dongen quit the Liberals this year, he said he also left due to unanswered questions about the government's sale of Crown-owned BC Rail, and some of those questions involved Clark.
Van Dongen said he did not want to comment on issues relating to the Conservative Party's leadership review.
The party constitution calls for a vote on whether to hold a leadership review and it requires only a majority vote to pass, which would mean Cummins would have to step down and a leadership campaign would start.
Party members have already received ballots and the result of the leadership review vote will be released at the Langley meeting.
Ben Besler, party vice-president, confirmed he's sent emails to party members calling for votes in favour of a leadership review. He declined to be interviewed further.
Cummins's leadership style, his relations with van Dongen, the party's two third-place finishes in recent byelections and Cummins's $4,000-a-month stipend have all surfaced as reasons behind the call for a leadership review.
"There's a couple people who are not happy with the way things are going," said Cummins. "These fellows, for whatever reason, chose to make a public display of their upset."
Cummins said he expects party members to endorse his leadership on Saturday by voting against a leadership review, but acknowledges the recent public party infighting has people focusing on the wrong targets.
"We should be shooting out, not in," he said.
"The vast majority of the party wants us to get on with the job, and they're not exactly thrilled by what's happening. But that's life and this is politics and you just have to keep trucking along."
Former B.C. Conservative Party leader Wilf Hanni said many of his fiercest political battles as leader were fought against his own members.
Hanni, who led the party from 2005-2009, said he was locked in an intense legal battle with Conservative Party members in the months leading up to and during the 2009 provincial election.
The Conservatives only polled two per cent support in that election and Hanni quit in June 2009, less than a month after the vote.
He said he understands what Cummins is going through.
"Some things never change do they?" said Hanni, who now leads the obscure Christian Heritage Party of British Columbia.
"The primary reason that I resigned as leader of the B.C. Conservative Party was because of all the bickering and infighting."
He said Conservatives embrace politics with vigour, but have difficulty working as a team. Hanni said many of the problems he faced as leader were battles with party members who had intense opinions about single issues, but were not able to compromise.
"I actually hoped my resignation would help put an end to it, but obviously my presence wasn't the cause," Hanni said "It seems to be endemic in that party. They don't learn."
Retired University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff said B.C.'s Conservatives have a tradition of fighting against themselves because they have yet to learn that achieving political power is the ultimate goal.
The B.C. Liberals, the former Social Credit Party and the New Democrats all learned the ultimate political prize is victory at the polls.
"The bottom line for them was the retention of power," said Ruff. "Ultimately, they would come together. There's a basic glue, but on the far right, personal ambition rather than ambition for the party seems to come to the forefront."
Ruff said he senses if Cummins can survive the weekend vote without facing a leadership challenge, he will emerge stronger, and perhaps finally then, the Conservatives will find unity.
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