Politically, the big winners from the Patrick Brown scandal are Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats.
Until Brown was forced to resign Thursday as leader of the province’s Progressive Conservatives, his party had been, in effect, the default alternative to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s struggling Liberals.
Voters might not know much about Brown (polls show that roughly half of Ontarians have no opinion of him one way or the other). But as long as he didn’t do anything crazy, he seemed a safe alternative to the desperately unpopular Wynne.
That all changed Wednesday night after CTV aired allegations by two unnamed women that Brown had made sexual advances toward them when they were teenagers.
Brown categorically denied the allegations. But the damage was done. His caucus unanimously called on him to resign as leader. Early Thursday morning, he complied.
With less than six months to go until the next provincial election, the now leaderless Tories are in an unhappy situation.
On the one hand, they are tarred in the public mind by these sexual impropriety allegations. On the other, they have laid themselves open to charges that they acted precipitously in axing Brown simply because of an unproven television report based on anonymous claims.
More to the point, they have only until June 7 to find, burnish and publicize a new leader. Any kind of leadership process risks reopening old fissures within the party between Red and Blue Tories.
Social conservatives within the party already felt conned by Brown, who won the leadership in 2015 with their backing and then turned on them. They will not easily be had a second time.
With a new leader, will the party revise Brown’s “People’s Guarantee” election platform, which currently supports many of Wynne’s labour and health reforms, as well as calling for short-term fiscal deficits?
Certainly, there will be pressure from the right to modify a document that is already derided by some Tories as “Liberal lite.”
Politically, all of this uncertainty is good news for Horwath. Indeed, in some ways her NDP is in the same position it held just before it won power under Bob Rae in 1990.
Then, as now, the NDP differed little ideologically from the governing Liberals. Today, for instance, both Horwath and Wynne – while differing on the details – support expanded labour rights and limited pharmacare.
In 1990, polls showed Rae to be the province’s most popular political leader. Horwath holds that position today.
But what could emerge as the most striking similarity between 1990 and 2018 is the position of the Tories.
For various reasons, their brand had taken a hit in 1990. Their direction was uncertain. Their new leader, an unknown MPP from North Bay named Mike Harris, had not been in place long enough to make much of an impression.
As well, their political fortunes were affected by the historic unpopularity of Canada’s then Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
The upshot of this was that the Tories – already in third place in the Legislature – forfeited their role as default alternative to the governing Liberals.
When voters decided they wanted to throw the bums out in 1990, they turned not to the Mike Harris PCs to do the job but to Bob Rae and the NDP.
History rarely repeats itself directly. A lot can happen between now and June 7. But if, as the politicians seem to think, the upcoming election becomes a referendum on whether to oust Wynne, then voters will be looking for a credible alternative to the Liberals – one that will be different but not too different.
Until Wednesday night, that credible alternative was Brown’s PC party. Now, for a surprising number of voters, it could end up being Horwath’s NDP.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.