OTTAWA — The pool of potential Conservative party leadership candidates just got a little bit smaller.
New Brunswick MP John Williamson announced in a statement Tuesday that after two weeks of exploring a leadership bid, “now is not the right time” for his own campaign.
“I want to thank the many, many volunteers who came together to plan, help collect the signatures I required, and raise the funds for this grand undertaking,” Williamson said.
“I am now going to focus on helping Conservatives once again become the party of aspiration,” he continued, suggesting that the party needs to expand its relevance to voters.
“We will win when we have answers to the questions that matter to Canadians and we are once again the party of confident new ideas.”
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Williamson, a former communications director for prime minister Stephen Harper, was first elected to the House of Commons in 2011.
He served as MP for New Brunswick Southwest until he was defeated in the 2015 election. Voters gave him a second shot this past October, breaking the Liberals’ hold over Atlantic Canada, ousting incumbent MP Karen Ludwig.
Williamson is exiting the race before the first major deadline for the Conservative leadership contest Prospective candidates have until Feb. 27 to collect 1,000 signatures from 30 ridings in seven provinces or territories and to pay a $25,000 installment toward the $300,000 registration fee.
He first publicly mused about joining the race last month after potential star candidates, including former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, and Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre, ruled themselves out. Wellington–Halton Hills MP Michael Chong also announced that he won’t be running for leadership.
Williamson called the race a “wide open” at the time.
“I think it’s clear that Peter MacKay has sewn up the Red Tory bloc and there is a huge element of blue conservatives on the right which are looking for a candidate,” he said. “Erin O’Toole is moving in that direction, trying to occupy that space, but that’s not his natural home.”
Durham MP Erin O’Toole and former federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay are considered the current front-runners in the race to replace outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Sarnia–Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu and former Conservative 2017 leadership contender Rick Peterson are also making bids.
Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who was previously on board to chair Poilievre’s leadership campaign, told Global News’ “The West Block” on Sunday he’s exploring the possibility of his own bid for the party’s top job.
This year’s six-month leadership race, which officially started in January, is more than a year shorter than the previous contest that gripped the party for 16 months in 2017. The registration fee then was significantly lower — just $50,000 — which resulted in 14 names on voting ballots.
This year’s $300,000 registration fee is designed to weed out less serious and organized candidates for the truncated race.
Conservative party members will vote for their next leader at a leadership convention in Toronto on June 27.
With files from The Canadian Press