Christine Elliott’s decision not to seek re-election means nearly a quarter of the Progressive Conservatives who won seats in 2018 will not run for Premier Doug Ford’s party in June.
This trend and Elliott’s announcement have prompted many anti-Ford supporters to toss around the “rats deserting the sinking ship” metaphor and other similar assertions that the PCs face defeat.
The theory is so full of holes that if it were a ship, it would already be at the bottom of the ocean.
First, the PC Party ship shows no real signs of sinking: they’re constantly polling in the top 30. Absolutely, things can change on election day, but that’s a pretty good position for a party in power with less than three months to go.
Second, Elliott’s departure is by no means unexpected: she’s 67, has been in public life since 2006 and has just spent two years as health minister in a global pandemic. Only someone blinded by partisanship would conclude that they are leaving simply because they believe the PCs will lose the election.
Consideration should be given, however, to the potential impact on the fortunes of the PC party when so many of its 76 MPs elected in 2018 fail to stand in 2022.
You can divide these 18 MPs into two categories:
- 11 of them (including Elliott and former minister Rod Phillips) chose not to seek re-election while still sitting in the government benches.
- 7 of them have been expelled or left the PC caucus in the last three years (some of them are running again, but either for another party or as independents).
The departure of incumbents is not uncommon when a government gets carried away. Eleven of Kathleen Wynne’s MPs declined to seek re-election in 2018. Of course, the Liberals had been in power for 15 years, and some of those politicians could feel the end was near as voters turned against Wynne.
What’s remarkable about the wave of PCs refusing to work this time is that it happened during the government’s first term.
Liberal veteran John Fraser, MPP for Ottawa South, said Monday he could not remember all his years of observing the policy of a government that had such a high proportion of its members leaving during his first term.
However, it would be imprudent for the opposition parties to read too much into the departures from the PC. It’s not necessarily a sign of a back-to-the-wall party.
Most of those who chose not to run are long-serving MPs who spent years in opposition before 2018, so their decision to leave politics is much more a matter of moving on than of abandon ship.
What’s more, PC Party campaign strategists aren’t worried about most of those 18 seats, as they’re in relatively safe Conservative territory.
But in five or six of those ridings, losing even the tiniest bit of incumbent advantage could hurt PCs if the province-wide race is tight. You could put Kitchener South-Hespeler, Cambridge, Scarborough Centre, Ajax and Burlington in this category, and maybe also Durham. None of these are what the PCs would consider safe seats.
It is important for the election. Ford will win another majority government if the Conservatives retain at least 63 of the 76 seats they won in 2018. Those half-dozen seats are among the key constituencies that will decide the outcome on June 2.
Elliott’s departure means much less about the Conservatives’ chances of winning the election than about what a Doug Ford government would look like for a second term.
Multiple sources in and around PC have told me that Elliott exerted a restraining influence on Ford during his premiership (Having heard similar information, the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn offered this analysis over the weekend. As for what Elliott’s departure really means, this view from TVO’s Matt Gurney is also worth reading).
I was told that Elliott had to “light the cabinet on fire” in mid-March 2020 for Ford to agree to declare a state of emergency when the first wave of COVID-19 began to hit the province.
It is worth recalling a key moment at the end of the 2018 election campaign, when the NDP was gaining ground on the PCs. Party strategists decided for the first time to put in front of the cameras a group of candidates considered to be in cabinet with Ford.
It was designed to send a message to voters who leaned towards the PC but had concerns about Ford as prime minister: “don’t worry, look at the strong, capable people who will be in his government.”
Eight candidates who appeared alongside Ford that day entered the cabinet. Two of them – Phillips and Elliott – will not return.
The opposition parties are of course trying to make hay with the departures from the ranks of the PC.
“Clearly it’s getting harder and harder for these government MPs to defend the indefensible, when it comes to how Doug Ford is running this province,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Friday after that Elliott has formalized his plans.
Fraser, who is the House leader of the Liberals, wonders what Elliott’s departure means for Ford’s cabinet team.
“If you’re going to play hide and seek with Ontarians, then you better have strong enough ministers to cover,” he said Monday at Queen’s Park.
Of course, the problem of building another cabinet is one that Ford would be only too happy to have after June 2.