He’s ready to lead, but are Conservatives ready for Charest?

Jean Charest is well on the way to succumbing to his last big political temptation: a run for the federal Conservative leadership and, in his best-case scenario, a solid shot at the job of prime minister.

As anyone who has talked to the former Quebec premier over the past week can testify, he has moved well past the introspective phase that attends a decision to jump back in the political fray.

In his mind at least, he is already running for the post Andrew Scheer reluctantly relinquished this month.

Over the past few days, Charest has not so much looked for advice as to the wisdom of throwing his hat in the ring as started to make a case for why he is the leader Conservatives need to win.

Someone else with the same high-profile track record would not leave what has been a successful transition to the private sector without a reasonably certain prospect of victory.

But he is a one-of-a-kind political animal. Born to campaign, he has accumulated more time on the hustings than anyone still active in politics, and he has enjoyed every minute of it.

At 61, Charest has run in nine federal and Quebec elections, leading the charge as a federal Tory and then as a provincial Liberal in six.

He fought in two referendums: for the Charlottetown constitutional accord in 1992 and for federalism in Quebec in 1995.

He did not win all his battles, but he was never humiliated in defeat.

The fire in the belly that kept him on the political front lines for most of his adult life is still intact.

If anything, he is more fired up about the possibility of a return to the federal arena than he ever was about leaving it 20 years ago, under pressure from all quarters of Canada’s political class, to reverse the post-referendum momentum of Lucien Bouchard’s pro-sovereignty coalition.

Throughout his years in the national assembly, federal politics remained his first love.

But if Charest does remain on cloud nine long enough to become an official leadership contender, it will have to be with his eyes wide open.

There would be no coronation and the campaign would not be a bed of roses.

His path to a federal victory against Justin Trudeau may be clearer than the road to the job of leader of the official opposition.

Charest believes it is that winnability in the bigger federal picture that will make him attractive to victory-hungry Conservatives.

But the party has changed since he left the federal arena in 1998. At this juncture, Charest has a surplus of have-been fans and a deficit of up-and-comers streetwise as to the current lay of the Conservative land.

It speaks to that transformation that the former premier needs Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, in his corner more than he needs Brian Mulroney.

And then there is the matter of the baggage Charest would bring to a bid, including an ongoing police investigation into his tenure as Quebec premier.

Quebec’s anti-corruption unit has already spent five years on his case. If it has anything solid to offer for its work, it has yet to produce it. Still, the file remains open.

As premier, Charest advocated both for carbon pricing that he introduced in Quebec and for vigorous gun control. Neither stance would be an asset with the Conservative base. But, even in a Liberal capacity, he never renounced the central Conservative creed of provincial autonomy.

Some of the biggest defeats he endured over his long career were at the hands of female rivals.

He narrowly lost the Tory leadership to Kim Campbell in 1993. It was Parti Québecois leader Pauline Marois who ousted him from power in Quebec in 2012.

History could repeat itself if Rona Ambrose, the former Conservative interim leader and the current unofficial front-runner among party supporters, puts her name up for leader.

Few expect Stephen Harper’s clan to hand the Conservative party to a former Tory leader such as Charest on a silver platter.

The thinking until this week was that many Harperites were looking to Ambrose as their lead choice to take the reins.

The latest developments may increase pressure on her to jump in.

If both ran, they would take most of the oxygen out of the room for any other aspirants. That starts with Peter MacKay as Charest would have first call on support the former federal minister absolutely needs to launch a viable leadership bid.

A duel between Charest and Ambrose could deepen some of the existing fault lines within the Conservative movement.

It could turn the campaign into a showdown between former Tories and former Reformers and between Quebec and the party’s Prairie base.

But here’s the thing: Between the two of them, Charest and Ambrose also have the potential to recast the Conservative party into the most lethal threat to the federal Liberals since the glory days of Brian Mulroney.

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