Ontario Tories are questioning — and defending — Tim Hudak's leadership in the wake of disappointing byelection results last week.
What fate awaits the PCs if Hudak stays or goes?
The internal dissension is about as internal as it gets: a small group of Progressive Conservative members from a London-area riding want next month's party convention to include a leadership vote. They may not succeed in changing the rules, but some PC MPPs are suggesting Hudak would be better off to call the vote himself, win it, and thereby release the tension building within the party.
Winning such a vote seems very likely — the dissent is coming from a tiny minority in one riding — but it is not so obvious Hudak would receive enough support to put out the flames. He took 79 per cent in the last leadership vote in 2011, but other leaders have not considered that level of support good enough. Bernard Landry resigned as leader of the Parti Québécois in 2005 after receiving 76 per cent support at a party convention.
Party members would probably be wiser to give Hudak a strong show of confidence if a leadership vote is held. The next election seems likely to occur in the spring, giving the party little time to organize a leadership race and even less to introduce a new leader to voters. The Ontario Liberals cannot be counted upon to give the PCs that time if the Tories lose the will to pull the plug themselves.
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Hudak still has the potential to win. His party has either led or been closely behind Liberals in most recent polls. Hudak increased his party's vote share and seat haul in 2011, reducing the Liberals to a minority government. He has chased the Liberals out of most rural ridings. While he did not win the two or three seats Tories hoped for in the set of five byelections, the victory in Etobicoke-Lakeshore demonstrated that — with a good candidate — the PCs can win seemingly safe Liberal seats.
While Hudak’s personal popularity ranks well below that of either Kathleen Wynne or Andrea Horwath, there is still the potential that under the pressures of a month-long campaign voters will sour on Wynne and the idea of giving Liberals another mandate after 10 years in office.
However, Hudak has never managed to really connect with voters on a personal level. Despite all the scandal swirling around the Liberal government, Tories have not moved definitively ahead in the polls and it was the NDP, not Tories, that took advantage of Liberal weakness in the byelections. He is less popular than his party, something that can be a serious drag on a party's turnout.
But ousting Hudak now would be a bigger gamble than giving him one last chance. There is no saviour waiting in the wings. And the party would need one, as there is not enough time to build the reputation of a relative unknown. Removing Hudak so precipitously would only signal turmoil and disorganization, hardly giving voters confidence in the PCs' ability to run the province. And with the federal Conservatives sinking in Ontario, there is little indication voters are itching for a right-of-centre option, if only it had a good leader.
Hudak will likely be given one more shot at an election in the spring, and despite his troubles he still has a real chance of winning. But if in that election Hudak manages to win more seats without removing the Liberals from power, what then?
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.